Perhaps the most dramatic proposal in the Legislature for changing Hawaii elections appears dead for this session as lawmakers opt for less controversial reforms.

Measures calling for the top two vote-getters in the August primaries to advance to the November general election regardless of their political party have been deferred in the House and a Senate measure has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Correction: An earlier version of this report indicated the House bills did not receive hearings. Written testimony was accepted before they were deferred.

Instead, measures calling for statewide all-mail voting and automatic recount in close races are moving ahead, along with other bills related to election campaigns.

Polling booths at Kawananakoa Middle School cafeteria during the primary election day. 13 aug 2016
Voters cast their ballots at Kawananakoa Middle School during the 2016 primary. A move to dramatically alter how primaries are run appears dead for this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The theory behind top-two voting was that if more of Hawaii’s general election matchups were actually competitive, more people would bother to vote. Under House Bills 1588 and 1589, the “top-two” primary system would have been used in elections for governor, lieutenant governor and the Legislature.

Currently primary voters choose the ballot of a single political party. And since the Democratic Party dominates the state, many races are effectively decided in primaries, even though they draw even fewer voters than general elections.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Chair Rep Chris Lee listens to lively testimony. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Chris Lee decided not to hold hearings on the top-two voting method in the House Judiciary Committee that he chairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But a top-two system would also probably result in a lot of Democrat vs. Democrat general election contests.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, who authored the House bills, said voters should be able to choose between the best candidates for office regardless of their party.

That could also be the best way to get people excited about elections, she said, adding “I really do not believe the election system is here to serve the parties.”

If the top-two rule had been in effect last year, it’s likely that Gov. David Ige and primary challenger Colleen Hanabusa would have faced off in November, while Josh Green and Jill Tokuda would have been the finalists for lieutenant governor.

Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, deferred the measures indefinitely Wednesday afternoon, saying lawmakers are already considering other reforms that would be easier to implement.

Senate Bill 954 also proposed a top-two primary, but it too has not been given a hearing.

Other Election-Related Bills

Measures that propose statewide all-mail voting beginning in 2022 are still alive. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 560 on Jan. 29. It next needs to clear the Ways and Means Committee.

A similar measure, House Bill 1248, is scheduled to be heard in Lee’s committee Friday.

Under the bills, all-mail elections would still provide several voting centers throughout the islands where voters could drop off their ballots.

Since 2014, Hawaii voters who cast absentee ballots have outnumbered those who walked in to traditional polling places.

“It just makes sense,” Lee said of the proposed change. “Otherwise you have a significant number of polling places open for a dwindling number of voters.”

Senate Bill 216 would require automatic recounts within 48 hours of an election if the difference between the top two vote-getters was 100 or fewer votes, or less than 0.5 percent of the total turnout in that race.

The push for automatic recounts comes as Trevor Ozawa and Tommy Waters prepare to face off in a special Honolulu City Council election April 13 after the state Supreme Court invalidated last year’s general election results in that race.

A similar measure cleared Lee’s committee Friday. It also passed HB 709, which proposes a constitutional amendment question for voters to decide on automatic recounts.

More than half a dozen bills connected to recounts have been introduced in the House, Lee said.

“We have an obligation, more than anything, to ensure people’s votes count and outcomes are fair,” he said.

Also Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 712 to require candidates for president, vice-president, governor, lieutenant governor and mayor to disclose their federal income tax returns before they are allowed spots on the Hawaii ballot.

It now heads to a vote of the full House.

Senate Bill 94, authored by Sen. Karl Rhoads, would require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to post their income tax returns on the internet before they can receive electoral votes from Hawaii. It is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chairs Feb. 12.

Campaign Finance

While lawmakers consider changing how Hawaii residents vote, they are also taking a look at how campaign money is spent and reported.

One measure that passed Lee’s committee Monday would allow winning candidates to use their excess campaign funds to donate to nonprofit organizations or scholarship programs. It would also remove limits for how much candidates can contribute to organizations after their campaign has ended.

group of bills has been introduced by the Campaign Spending Commission, including one that proposes heftier fines against non-candidate committees that flout campaign finance laws. A proposed bill would raise fines from $1,000 to $5,000 for each violation.

Alternatively, the commission could also fine the violating group up to three times the amount of illegal contributions under the proposed bill, which passed Lee’s committee Monday.

House Bill 163 and its companion, Senate Bill 138, would increase financial transparency by adding another fundraising and spending report deadline Oct. 1 for general election candidates. There are currently only two report deadlines for candidates between the primary and general elections, one in late October and another the day before the general election.

The bill, along with several other reform measures, were deferred by Lee until Friday. The Senate version has yet to receive a committee hearing.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Tuesday morning that would expand the amount of public money a candidate running for a seat with no incumbent can receive. The change could help lesser known candidates who don’t receive a lot of private contributions.

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