Ranked Choice Voting Will Improve Hawaii's Elections - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


In May 2010 Hawaii voters did something they had done only twice since statehood in 1959: they elected a Republican to the U.S. Congress.

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Charles Djou won a special election to complete the seventh months or so remaining in the term of U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who stepped down earlier that year to run for governor. Because it was a special election it was a nonpartisan contest — there was no party primary — and Djou prevailed in a winner-take-all field of 14 with just 39% of the vote.

But Democrats Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case received nearly 31% and 28% of the special election vote, respectively, demonstrating that a solid majority of voters in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District preferred a Democrat over a Republican.

Indeed, Hanabusa easily won the Democratic primary that September for a new two-year term — Case dropped out of the running and endorsed Hanabusa — and she defeated Rep. Djou that November by 6 percentage points.

It was not a fluke. Hanabusa also beat Djou in a 2012 rematch by nearly 10 percentage points. Djou never made it back to Congress, losing to Democrat Mark Takai in 2014.

Charles Djou and Colleen Hanabusa competed for a U.S. House seat in 2010, where the winner-take-all format did not necessarily mean that a candidate favored by the majority actually won. 

If Hawaii had had in place ranked choice voting, it’s quite possible that Hanabusa or Case would have won the 2010 special election, keeping the seat in the hands of Democrats. Since 1971, Democrats had won the seat 17 times compared to just twice for Republicans.

Put another way, Hawaii’s election system did not serve the interests of a majority of voters in 2010.

But if the Hawaii Legislature passes and the Hawaii governor signs into law ranked choice voting for special federal elections — but also special elections for vacant county seats and statewide races for governor and lieutenant governor — our elected leaders would more equitably reflect the desires of the electorate.

A Majority Winner

Ranked choice voting, sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting (or RCV and IRV, for shorthand), gives voters the option to choose candidates for office by order of preference. The ballot asks voters to rank the candidates — first, second, third and so forth — and the candidate with the majority of first choices wins.

If a candidate wins with 50% of the vote, there is no need for the ranking system to kick in. The results would be just like they are in any other single-choice election.

But if there is no majority winner, as is often the case when multiple candidates vie for the same office, the race is determined by an “instant runoff” — that is, as soon as the ballots can be tabulated.

As the nonpartisan FairVote explains it, “The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote.”

A screen shot of how a ranked choice voting ballot might look, from FairVote.
A screen shot from FairVote’s website of how a ranked choice voting ballot might look. 

FairVote says RCV promotes majority rule: “Voters can honestly rank the candidate they like most, without fear that doing so will help the candidate they like least. With greater choice, voters have more power.”

Sound radical? Not at all.

The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures points out that RCV has a 100-year history in the United States, with several cities adopting it in the 1920s and 1930s. As of 2020, more than a dozen cities used RCV including Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, and San Francisco and Oakland in California.

In July, Eric Adams won the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, where voters ranked up to five candidates in order of preference. Tabulation errors on the part of city officials delayed the results but did not impact the final result.

It is worth noting that Adams, who now faces a Republican candidate in the general election in November, is Black while the three runners-up included two women — one of them Black — and an Asian male. FairVote cites a study of California’s Bay Area that found people of color hold office at a higher rate under RCV.

The group’s California chapter says it has also resulted in greater diversity among elected officials, including women. And there are a number of indications that turnout also increases with RCV.

In addition to greater gender and ethnic diversity, NCSL says the voting system also limits the “spoiler” effect of independent or minor-party candidates in plurality elections.

“With ranked-choice voting, voters can select their first choice from a minority party, and a candidate from one of the two major parties as their second choice. If no candidate receives 50% of the first-choice selections, the voter’s second choice — a Democrat or a Republican — would get the vote.”

RCV Comes To Hawaii

Last year, Maine became the first state to use RCV in a general presidential election through a citizens’ initiative. That same year Alaska enacted RCV via a ballot measure, too, says NCSL. And FairVote says that a dozen states use or have enacted RCV in local elections, including California, Oregon, New York and Florida.

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Even Hawaii has begun to use RCV, although in a limited fashion.

Last year, we become one of four states to use RCV in a presidential primary. Joe Biden defeated Bernie Sanders in ranked choice voting in the mail-in election run by the Democratic Party of Hawaii, with the final vote tally listing Elizabeth Warren third, Tulsi Gabbard fourth and six other Democrats on the ballot.

If Hawaii were to adopt RCV, the Legislature is the place to do it. Fortunately, bills have been considered by our lawmakers, including in the since completed 2021 session. Those bills carryover to the next session that begins in January.

Detail from the Democratic Party of Hawaii 2020 presidential primary ballot. 

One measure would establish ranked choice voting for all partisan primary elections, special elections and nonpartisan general elections held in the state. Another measure would provide RCV for special federal elections and special elections of vacant county council seats.

That latter bill, Senate Bill 560, managed to make it through before dying in the waning days of session. But it is technically still alive and can be brought up again next year.

There is bound to be resistance to changing the way we vote. But change can happen. Hawaii successfully moved to all mail-in voting in 2020 after several years of failed attempts. The result was the highest turnout since 1994.

Contact Key Lawmakers

The Legislature built on that success by approving a law this year to improve mail-in balloting, in part by requiring the state Office of Elections and the country clerks to decide whether they need more voter service centers. Another new law makes an application for voter registration automatically part of all state identification card and driver’s license applications.

Interested in making ranked choice voting a permanent part of our electoral system? Contact your legislator now.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

And Civil Beat misses the point again.  The problem with our elections has nothing to do with the process.  It's that ALL our candidates are either incompetent, venal, dishonest, or corrupt.

nobotrobot · 1 month ago

I'm okay with ranked choice voting but in our state, it had better be accompanied by a massive education effort.

JimP · 1 month ago

Ranked choice voting is not a good idea. Keep the election process as is and bring back election day voting at precinct locations.

macprohawaii · 1 month ago

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