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We all know Hawaii has hard-to-fix election problems.
Voter turnout is consistently low, and one big reason is the prevalence of lackluster races, especially in general elections.
Competition-wise, a renaissance of the Hawaii Republican Party would help, but there’s no sign of that happening. The fact is, many of the most powerful conservative politicians in the islands are Democrats, just like the most powerful progressives.
That means most races of consequence are decided during our strangely scheduled Saturday primaries in August. And most voters skip those as well.
You could debate what came first: voter apathy or one-party control of state government. But they’re clearly intertwined, and what’s worse is the dominance of incumbents that turns the Legislature into an exclusive club instead of a people’s house where everyone has a voice.
When most citizens quit caring about elections, we have a society in trouble because the powerful are no longer accountable. It’s a problem most legislators and their financial backers are not going to try to fix because they are its beneficiaries.
That’s why it’s crucial that voters don’t blow the once-a-decade opportunity they have in the Nov. 6 election to call for a constitutional convention.
If a convention is approved, its delegates would be elected next year or in 2020 and they would have the opportunity to propose constitutional amendments — a power that otherwise rests exclusively with the Legislature.
We editorialized earlier that such a convention would be a success if it only managed to propose giving people the options of statewide citizen initiative, referendum and recall.
Election reforms could then follow via the initiative process — or the convention delegates could try to come up with specific solutions themselves.
Here are some of those possible solutions — we don’t endorse them all, but we’d love to see them discussed in venues of consequence beyond the Legislature:
• Make it easier to vote.
The Legislature has been inexplicably slow to recognize that most people want to vote by mail these days rather than at traditional polling places. It did approve a bill that will allow all-mail balloting on a trial basis in 2020 on Kauai, but by now Hawaii should have joined Oregon, Washington and Colorado with a conversion to statewide all-mail balloting.
People could still be given the option of dropping off their ballots or casting them in person at early voting centers, which Hawaii already offers. But it’s time to streamline the election day process.
Same-day registration began this year, allowing eligible adults to become voters as late as election day. Now we should consider other means of easy voter registration, such as making it occur automatically when obtaining a driver’s license or state ID (right now people have to opt in to register at those times).
In addition, Hawaii election officials need to get over their ill-advised aversion to publishing voter guides.
• Make it easier to know who’s bankrolling candidates.
Hawaii is woefully inadequate in its timing requirements for fundraising and spending reports of candidates and political action committees.
For the general election, there is not a single deadline for the candidates themselves to file those reports until Oct. 29 — just seven days before the election and a couple of weeks after absentee ballots have been sent out.
The increasingly important noncandidate committees had a deadline of Oct. 1, but now can collect and spend with no further public reporting until Oct. 29.
This is clearly a benefit for well-funded candidates and PACs, and a hindrance to people wanting to know who supports a candidate or ballot measure before they vote.
It would be easy enough to establish earlier deadlines, but that hasn’t happened. Indeed, some state Campaign Spending Commission members are talking about walking back a reform that requires more timely reporting of certain electioneering expenses because, doggone it, candidates who get caught violating it say it’s just too complicated.
• Change how primaries are run.
How many times have you heard the complaint that in Hawaii, everything gets decided in the Democratic primary? What if the candidates of all political parties, plus nonpartisans, were thrown onto the same primary ballot with the top two advancing to the general election?
That’s what California and Washington have done with their top-two primaries.
If Hawaii had been using this method in August, we’d be looking at a more competitive race for the 1st Congressional District between Democrats Ed Case and Doug Chin, instead of the coronation of Case by an expected landslide in his contest against perennial Republican candidate Cam Cavasso. And Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa would still be alive in her bid to unseat incumbent Gov. David Ige, who is instead a heavy favorite against Republican Andria Tupola.
In the islands, the top-two primary system would likely lead to many Democrat vs. Democrat general election contests, which would be tough on smaller political parties (including the GOP) but would likely generate more voter interest because of closer contests.
Another alternative method in primaries is ranked choice voting, which allows voters to list candidates in order of preference and can result in winners who have broader support in races with three or more candidates.
We’re not endorsing either alternative, but they’d merit discussion at a constitutional convention.
• Term limits for legislators.
We have them for governors, lieutenant governors, mayors, prosecutors and county councils, why not for the Legislature?
The short answer is because legislators aren’t inclined to propose such limits on themselves. ConCon delegates might feel differently.
Fifteen states currently have legislative term limits, including California, Arizona and Colorado.
Term limits would have a dramatic effect in Hawaii, where incumbent legislators are rarely defeated and often serve for many terms.
They would strike a blow at the status quo and make for more competitive elections, since there would be more open seats on the ballots.
Opponents argue that legislating is complicated and we benefit from the accrued institutional knowledge of longtime officeholders. They also point to the fact that in effect we already have what amounts to term limits for legislators because they are occasionally forced to run for re-election.
Which brings us back to the overall problem of an election system direly in need of reform.
Term limits may or may not be a good solution, but something needs to happen to shake up the system.
We need some new voices at the table, and we can get them by voting “yes” for a constitutional convention.
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