A lot of words are spent by journalists about Hawaii’s low voter turnout. Various gimmicks, such as all mail in voting are proposed to deal with this situation.

However, voter turnout is a symptom, rather than a problem in and of itself. The fundamental issue is a lack of competitive races wherein candidates with different points of view are able to put forth their ideas.

Yes, the recent Democratic primary between Colleen Hanabusa and David Ige was competitive, but the differences between them on actual policy was negligible. We should all understand that the electoral process is a means to an end; not an end in itself. The goal should be getting better government. 


Early Voting 2018 Honolulu Hale. 4 aug 2018
Over 100,000 people statewide have already voted at early polling locations and through mail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Having a more engaged electorate and a better conversation on issues starts with creating an environment where more points of view are included and more candidates come forward to run for office. Money is often seen as the be all and end all of the process. It is important, but it isn’t everything.

What we do need is more candidates with an adequate budget to put forward viable campaigns. A good place to start is to address our current state matching fund program.

Many people don’t realize that Hawaii has had a public funding program for years. The reason it is not accessed is that it provides very little money and comes with barriers to access which are complicated and don’t always make sense. Proposals have floated around for years to have full public funding for qualified candidates.

Several states have adopted a program that has been suggested for Hawaii. However, this program is very problematic. Libertarians don’t like the fact that it is funded by involuntary taxation.

A portion of a 2018 primary sample ballot. Screen shot

An important practical issue is the method used for qualifying candidates. One must get small donations (such as a dollar) from say 200 registered voters in the legislative district the candidate is running in. This system allows membership organizations such as unions, churches, the AARP and others to have a disproportionate influence on who qualifies. They can have their members in a district make the small contributions.

Anyone, who thinks it is an easy task to go out and get these contribution without the support of a voting bloc, has never tried to do so.

A better idea is to have a voluntary fund established and a qualification process similar to the one currently used in Hawaii. So instead of gathering funds through a small checkoff from tax returns, folks would be able to contribute as much as they want. One such donation of $1,000 (which would be tax deductible) would be more than 300 taxpayers checking a $3 box.

If so many people are concerned about creating a neutral fund for candidates, putting their money where their mouth is by making such donations would be the way to get a big fund. With more fund money candidates could get as much as $20,000 in assistance rather than the couple of thousand dollars that may now be available. This would be a real help in convincing community members to run for office and in creating more interest in the election. The administrative costs of the campaign spending commission for salaries and office space should come from the general fund and not be commingled in the fund for candidates.

Too Many Hoops 

Other statutory barriers to candidacy should also be addressed. Why create artificial rules that make getting on the ballot a chore? Political parties such as my Libertarian, the Greens, Constitutional and any others, must jump through hoops to have their candidates placed on the ballot. Our ballot access laws were substantially improved in 1999 based on a bill which I drafted. Prior to that a political party had to get over 7,000 signatures from registered voters to be allowed to run candidates. If it then received enough votes it would be allowed to run in the next election.

The reform lowered the signature threshold to about 700 votes (actually one-tenth of 1 percent of the voter registration total). It also streamlined and simplified the vote total qualification option.The stated reason for not getting rid of these qualifications all together (as my draft bill had suggested) was that it would lead to more three way elections wherein the majority didn’t get its way. Honestly, with over 30 legislative races being unopposed in the 2018 general election, isn’t the lack of candidates a bigger problem than having too many?

Make the rules easier for independents and third party candidates to be on the ballot.

And further, the majority of people don’t even vote. Look at the wins of Ed Case and Josh Green in the Democratic primary just held. Neither came close to 50 percent of the votes cast in races with a number of viable candidates. Does this mean the sky is falling? Green got 75,000 votes in a state with a population of close to a million and a half.

Making the rules easier for independents, and third party candidates to be on the ballot along with the funding changes noted above may mean more actual competitive races. 

There are a number of other ideas that float around for reform. One is to eliminate or loosen the district residency requirements for candidates to our state Legislature. Qualified candidates for our two U.S. congressional seats can live anywhere in Hawaii. But state legislators must live in a district they wish to represent.

The lines between districts may be arbitrary. I know a lot of voters don’t want to have non-district residents represent them. I ask you to think about whether having a non-resident challenger on the ballot is better than no challenger. If district residency is a vote moving issue for you, don’t vote for the non-resident.

One option is to loosen this rule in cases where the June filing deadline passes and there is only one candidate on the ballot. Allowing a short period for non-residents to get on the ballot to offer some opposition might then be applicable.

None Of The Above

Another way to deal with the problem of uncontested elections is to add “none of the above” to all elections.  The acronym for this is NOTA. If NOTA gets more votes than any candidate on the ballot there is no winner and a new election must be held. There are structural problems with holding additional elections. If this was tool used only in the primary it could empower voters to fire an incumbent they did not like. It would still give a new set of candidates time to get on the general election ballot.

There are many other possible ways to change the structure of our elections to give voters more choices in terms of ideas and motive more people to become candidates. I will address one other point which is the media attitude towards third party and underfunded candidates. Ignoring them, means ignoring their ideas and leaving the public discussion to a very limited set of thoughts put forward by a few high profile and well-funded candidates. If we are to have better government the out of the box ideas that come from candidates who are not afraid of losing need to be heard.

In 2014 there were four qualified governor candidates for the November election. Mufi Hannemann who was polling around 10 percent was included in the network TV stations live debates. Libertarian Jeff Davis, who was polling at 4 percent, was not. He was included in several community forums, and even on KHET, without any perceptible harm to the process. With four candidates, why include three when both of the lower polling ones were so far behind in the polls?

In the recent Democratic primary races for the 1st Congressional District and lieutenant governor, multiple candidate were allowed to participate in live TV debates.  Why is there enough room on the stage for five or six Democrats, but not enough for a Libertarian polling fourth in a four way race? We were told, point blank, by one TV station that since Jeff wasn’t raising much money he wasn’t a legitimate candidate. How does that make you feel as a rationale for who should be heard and who not?

Editor’s note: Tracy Ryan is the chair of the Libertarian Party of Hawaii. The opinions expressed by her here are her own and not necessarily those of the party. 

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About the Author

  • Tracy Ryan
    Tracy Ryan is executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii, a non-profit whose mission is to educate and promote the use of harm reduction approaches to solving social problems, such as addiction and homelessness. Ryan has more than 20 years of experience working with persons in the sex industry, their problems and the law.