In Hawaii’s upcoming legislative session, lawmakers need to strongly consider changing the way we hold primaries to put more power back into the hands of voters. While the concept of ranked choice voting was explored last session with no result, what we really need to make things easier and better in local elections is a jungle primary (also known as a “top two”) voting system.

The current process of selecting partisan candidates who will square off in the general election is an outdated method which, as both Hawaii and our nation as a whole becomes more politically polarized, increasingly disenfranchises voters.

Early Voting 2018 Honolulu Hale polls with empty booths.

The current primary election system disenfranchises many voters.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

High school civics students know that America’s founders were extremely concerned about the potential for faction and partisanship to undermine the new republic they had just created at great cost in blood, sweat and tears through armed revolt against the British Empire.

John Adams, in writing to Jonathan Jackson, bemoaned that “there is nothing I dread so much, as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil, under our Constitution.”

Adams’ fears are now fully realized in 2019, as service in government has become less about public utility and more about parties one-upping each other in a constant quest for opportunity. At the candidate-voter level of interaction, there is a political arms race for parties to nominate the most seemingly progressive or conservative candidate to represent their party in a general election.

In our age of 24/7 news, instant social media, meme culture, and countless personal “activist”-type political blogs, topics discussed and opinions formed are far too often determined by virality rather than sanity, which pushes candidates of both parties farther into extremes and gives rise to a toxic political atmosphere.

This is in part why last week at the Obama Foundation Summit, former President Obama expressed his concerns about how modern online activism of “call out” or “cancel” culture, where people are permanently blacklisted or scorned for making unpopular choices, is becoming self-defeating.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” Obama said at the summit. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”

We need to ask ourselves what kind of society are we living in when Democrats and Republicans are so hostile to each other that the members of both parties sincerely believe that their political rivals represent an existential threat. When people feel that their choice is simply left or right, blue or red, Coke or Pepsi, it is only inevitable that hostility and paranoia will increase among voters who feel they aren’t getting their way.

Welcome To The Jungle

One immediate benefit of the “jungle primary” system is that the best fit for the voters, not parties, can be elected. Instead of getting the most radical partisans in the general and having to choose between the lesser of two evils, voters can pick the two candidates they like best, regardless of party.

As a conservative Republican, I can already imagine members of my party having anxiety attacks that only Democrats will be elected or that special interests will just flood the election with their partisans to hijack who gets nominated.

In reality, we have seen from the example of local special elections when candidates of all parties are thrown onto the same ballot that Hawaii’s establishment usually experiences an upset. Republican Charles Djou was elected to Congress in 2010, as an example, out of the rare circumstance of then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie vacating his seat to run for office.

Hawaii needs the freedom to vote for shades of gray, not just black or white.

Furthermore, in Hawaii districts where Democrats have an absolute lock on the electorate, a top-two system would allow voters to choose the best representative, not necessarily the best Democrat. Instead of voting for a hardcore progressive Democrat versus a conservative Republican, perhaps some districts might want a moderate running against a moderate where the deciding factor is the personality or temperament of the candidate.

The true benefit, however, of a top-two primary is the fact that it gives voters the opportunity to correct mistakes. Sometimes luck, confusion or just plain politics causes voters to choose the wrong person in the primary, and by the difference of just one vote, a great candidate can be eliminated from the general election.

In a top-two system, two great Democrats, or even two great Republicans, can face each other again in a general and voters are free to change their minds or correct their oversights.

Hawaii needs the freedom to vote for shades of gray, not just black or white. A top-two jungle primary can give us that option.

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