It’s hard for any non-establishment candidate to win an election in Hawaii. But state election rules make it especially difficult for candidates who don’t align with any political party to advance past the primary in partisan races.
This isn’t an issue in races for mayor, county councils or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which are completely nonpartisan. But if you dare to run as a nonpartisan for partisan offices like the Legislature, governor, lieutenant governor or Congress, well, good luck.
“I knew I was a long shot, but I didn’t realize the deck was stacked against you,” said Andrew Kayes, a candidate for the state House District 9 seat in Central Maui.
Under the state’s primary rules, voters must choose a single party’s ballot. That could be Democrat, Republican, the Green Party or others, or they could choose to vote only in the sparsely populated nonpartisan races for state offices.
But here’s the catch: While the top vote-getter in any party advances to the general election no matter how many primary votes they receive, nonpartisan candidates have to meet a different standard to advance. They must receive at least 10 percent of the total votes cast for that office (pretty much impossible) or as many votes as the lowest total received by a partisan candidate who wins a party nomination (possible, but only if there’s at least one candidate from an obscure party in the race).
Kayes admits he was still confused even after elections office workers explained the rules to him.
“I would argue that it’s a law that grossly favors incumbents and the party in power,” he said.
Adriel Lam, the only independent candidate running to represent the Kaneohe area in state House District 49, knows this struggle. He’s running along with four Democrats for the seat.
Lam said the law almost forces people to pull partisan ballots even though many don’t want to.
“There’s only one other party” in his race, he said. “And meeting the 10 percent threshold, it’s just as much a challenge as competing with them for their nomination.”
Nonpartisan candidates occasionally advance to the general election, but none has won a race since at least 1992, the earliest year for which elections data is readily available online.
It’s easier for them to advance if the race also includes a minor party candidate, who is likely to get fewer votes. It’s almost impossible for a nonpartisan candidate to advance if the only other candidates are Democrats or Republicans.
Calvin Griffin, who’s running to represent urban Honolulu in the 1st Congressional District, is one of the few nonpartisan candidates who has cleared the primary hurdle. In 2016 he ran for the same office and got 4,381 votes in the general election. He received 552 votes in the primary, more than candidates from the Constitution and American Shopping parties.
This is his fifth time running for elected office as a nonpartisan candidate.
That hasn’t been easy, but remaining independent is important to his political beliefs. He’s only been invited to one media-sponsored debate and said some people don’t even know that nonpartisan candidates are able to run for partisan offices.
“I’m not happy with the system with either party,” he said of Democrats and Republicans. “They don’t really encourage people who really want to be part of the solution.”
California and Washington have tried to moderate partisan politics in general elections by switching to a top-two primary, in which the top two vote-getters in a race advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
The top-two primary is thought by experts to give minor party or nonpartisan candidates a better shot at winning, but also can result in two candidates from the same party facing off in the general election. That would be an especially likely result in Democrat-dominated Hawaii.
Particulars vary by state, but nonpartisan candidates can advance to the general election ballot if they obtain a certain number of signatures from voters in their district.
The number of signatures required generally ranges from 500 to 1,500, but that varies depending on the level of office. Some states base the number of signatures off a fraction of the number of votes cast for a particular office in a prior election.
Hawaii only requires nonpartisan candidates to collect signatures from 25 registered voters — but that only gets them onto the primary ballot, typically a ticket to oblivion.
Though it’s relatively easy to register as a nonpartisan candidate, some repeat contenders have grown discouraged and joined a party.
Michael Last, a Libertarian candidate for state House District 3 in Kona, ran as a nonpartisan candidate twice before joining the Libertarian Party. He made the switch because he felt he had no chance of advancing to the general election otherwise.
Voters he spoke to didn’t want to “waste their votes” by pulling a nonpartisan primary ballot, Last said.
He said he’s not running because he wants to hold office.
“The reason I’m running is to give you a choice,” he said. “If I didn’t run, whoever wins the Democratic primary would be sworn in.”
As for Kayes, he said he might consider running as a Republican next time.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
During this unique election season, we appreciate that you and others like you have relied on Civil Beat for accurate, objective coverage of the candidates and their races.
Covering the pandemic has taken a lot of our collective energy. But through it all, our small team of reporters made sure you didn’t forget about electoral politics. Because we know that elections not only test society’s participation in our democracy, but journalism’s commitment to safeguarding it.
If you’ve relied on our election coverage this season, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our newsroom.