Leaders in the Hawaii House of Representatives called a press conference last week to boast of a package of more than a dozen bills dedicated to reforming ethics and elections. The measures target the problems of money in politics, voter apathy and public corruption.

“Even if a handful of these bills end up moving this year, it still represents the single largest reform in Hawaii voting and elections and transparency and campaign finance policy in perhaps a generation,” said Chris Lee, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Lee is correct that an unusually large slate of reform legislation is still alive this session at the Capitol. Should a bulk of the measures ultimately pass and head to Gov. David Ige for his signatures, they could make a real difference.

We support the measures identified by the House, but also others in that chamber as well as in the Senate.

Rep Chris Lee at the post crossover House Presser.
Rep. Chris Lee with House colleagues announcing reform bills Wednesday at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bills would require automatic recounts in close elections, enact voting by mail statewide next year, require voter registration when getting driver’s licenses and identification cards, set up a public funding program for county election candidates, restrict participation in political activities by state employees and officers, increase fines for campaign finance violations committed by noncandidate committees and close a loophole in the ban on contributions by state and county contractors.

But wait — there’s more.

Other bills would forbid former legislators and executive branch employees from engaging in lobbying for two years after they leave those jobs, force governors and mayors to reject outside compensation while serving, require candidates for those offices and president and vice president to disclose their tax returns and add more campaign spending filing deadlines to improve transparency.

A hearing in the House is already scheduled next week on a Senate bill to have ranked choice voting for special federal elections and vacant county council seats. It would allow voters to identify their preferred candidates by a numerical system so that the ultimate winning candidate has the broadest electoral support.

A House bill would apply the ranked choice method to all partisan primary elections, which makes sense, as primary elections in Hawaii are usually more significant than the general elections because of one-party dominance.

Here’s another good bill that has passed the Senate and now awaits House consideration: making public the financial disclosure statements of state agency executive directors. Such a law already applies to state elected offices and a host of administrative positions and members of boards and commissions.

Many of these ideas were inspired by recent elections and the sad fact that voter turnout is awful in Hawaii. The measures come as the U.S. House of Representatives last week passed HR 1, a mammoth “political money, ethics and voting overhaul” that now heads to the U.S. Senate, as Roll Call reported.

“The bill includes provisions to enable automatic voter registration, strengthen resources to stave off foreign threats on elections and make Election Day a national holiday for federal workers,” says The Hill.

Unlike HR 1, however, which passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. House on a party-line vote and is not expected to be acted on in the Republican-controlled Senate, the reform bills at the Hawaii Legislature have attracted bipartisan support. It helps that few of the measures require more money from the state.

Approval of the election and ethics reform bills is the right thing to do, and not just “a handful” of them. To build on Lee’s view, their enactment into law would be a major highlight of the 2019 Legislature and show serious devotion to improving state government.

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