The Hawaii Legislature has considered a number of bills to revise Hawaii’s electoral system and voting process. One is House Bill 210, which would change the way we vote in partisan primary races to a ranked choice method, also known as an instant run-off.

In a ranked choice ballot, voters not only select the candidate of their choice, but also assign a preference order to which candidates they would rather have in office over the other. A candidate who gets the majority of first-choice votes is the winner. If there is no majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and votes are recalculated until eventually someone wins with a majority of first-choice votes.

The concept behind ranked choice voting is that rather than a simple contest of who can get the most votes, the added dimension of candidate palatability is engineered into an election, deterring individuals from simply knee-jerk voting or selecting a lesser of two evils.

Using last year’s Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District as an example, if voters liked Donna Mercado Kim and Doug Chin, but weren’t sure if either could beat the more moderate Ed Case, they could have hedged their bets by assigning Mercado first rank; Chin second rank; and Case third rank, or even lower among the other candidates.

CD1 Hawaii News Now Debate Kamehameha Schools.
Under the ranked choice system, voters could have stated first choice, second choice, etc., in the crowded field of candidates in last year’s Democratic congressional primary. From left are candidates Ed Case, Kaniela Ing, Beth Fukumoto, Donna Mercado Kim, Doug Chin and Ernie Martin. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Instead of voting against a candidate or an issue, ranked choice voting allows the electorate the option of a hot/cold slider bar on what is most important and least important to them.

In theory, ranked choice voting is an outstanding approach to democracy. The problem, however, is that Hawaii already suffers from poor voter participation and many voters struggle with contests that include large fields of candidates like those often running for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. Blank votes in some instances add up to more than those for the candidates, suggesting people either didn’t know how to vote or didn’t have the patience to follow through that far down the ballot.

Anyone who has volunteered to staff a polling station or worked on a political campaign knows that voters get easily agitated and impatient with the way the current primary ballot is designed. Senior citizens, in particular, are sometimes so overwhelmed or intimidated by their ballots that they often need someone to assist them in the booth with how to vote.

Adding an extra layer of activity to a ballot could have the fallout of making Hawaii elections more complicated, more annoying, and more deterring to citizens who already aren’t stepping up to their civic duty.

How Do We Make This Work?

Should the Legislature amend the electoral process to a ranked choice voting system in partisan primary races, any rollout must include a major voter orientation and education program to prepare people for such a significant paradigm shift.

Historically, the Legislature has an annoying habit of radically changing rules, appropriating token funds to an obscure, understaffed office tasked with compliance education, but still demanding the public get its act together in short order. That’s no way to run a government.

If the Legislature really wants ranked choice, it should call for a “soft opening” special election which involves only one contest – say for example, a congressional race – and based on how effectively that election goes, a task force could make recommendations on how to improve the process.

The potential for blowing up the state with an instantaneous paradigm shift is not a risk we should be quick to take without a beta test. Like so many other things, new public policy ideas are always sold with glowing promises of how well things worked in other places, but our local situation is unique and whatever we do must be scaled to our specific context.

Forget notions of a blue wave or red wave; Democrats and Republicans alike should ask themselves whether or not they’re willing to gamble with having a freak storm election where the entire state gets turned inside out as a result of voters being confused, intimidated or just annoyed by a new electoral method. Remember, when it comes to democratic government, the simplest solution usually tends to be the best one.

In addition to a soft opening special election, the Legislature needs to commit to financing a major public education campaign that includes not only PSA-type commercials, but also involves workshops for voters, outreach to senior citizens and possibly even curriculum changes for public school students.

This would have two objectives. First, voters would have the opportunity to ask questions and practice employing the new ranked choice method; and second, people could be encouraged to actually participate more in Hawaii elections.

Personally, I’d rather just have a nonpartisan blanket primary, and throw everyone on the same ballot, as that would require far less training and startup preparation. But since the Legislature seems to be warm to HB 210, if that’s the way we are to go, let’s at least have the tools necessary to make it work.

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