Reform Hawaii Elections To Stop Local Corruption - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Charles Djou

Charles K. Djou is a former congressman, Honolulu city councilmember and Hawaii state legislator. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.


Last week a Honolulu city planning bureaucrat pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to illegally fix issuance of building permits.

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Yet, amidst the guilty pleas of former state Sen. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty Cullen, mixed with federal indictments of multiple senior cabinet officials in Kirk Caldwell’s former mayoral administration, another state legislator escaping punishment for drunk driving, plus a former Honolulu police chief now in prison, this major news story was all but lost.

A government worker accepting bribes, sadly, just seems all too normal in Hawaii government. It is a simple truth that our local government has developed a serious problem with political corruption. We need to do something about it.

A rigor mortis has set in in Hawaii politics, causing a depressingly high level of tolerance for corruption in our ruling political class. A lack of competitive elections forms the root cause of the regular corruption scandals at all levels in Hawaii government.

Today, the majority of Hawaii politicians win reelection by just filing their election paperwork. Competitive races are the exception, not the rule, with most Hawaii elections. Hawaii elections are too often just pro-forma ceremonies rather than an actual competition of ideas.

Hawaii State Capitol.
Term limits at the Legislature could lead to less corruption. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The result? Democracy breaks down and corruption scandal after corruption scandal now engulfs our community.

It does not have to be this way. We can fix this sclerosis in Hawaii politics with a few simple reforms to bring back competitive elections, build a more vibrant democracy, and get rid of the regularity of Hawaii political corruption. Here are several common sense reform ideas:

Establish A “Jungle” Primary

Some states with near total domination of one political party have adopted the jungle primary and top-two election system to ensure competitive democratic elections. Every candidate, regardless of party, runs in the primary. If no one receives over 50% of the vote, the top two go on to the general election — even if both are from the same political party.

Washington and California, staunch Democrat states, and Louisiana, a staunch Republican state, adopted this system to bring more dynamism into their governments. With competitive elections, politicians are forced to work for the people’s vote and engaging in corrupt activities is less tempting.

Hawaii voters are already familiar with this system as it has been used for decades by every county in Hawaii. It is time to bring this system that works in all Hawaii county elections into our state and federal elections too.

Eliminate Corporate And Union Political Contributions

Federal law already prohibits direct political contributions to candidates from companies and unions. Only individuals or a registered and regulated political action committee may make political contributions to candidates for Congress. Hawaii state and county elections should adopt the same system. Only real, live, citizens should be allowed to make political donations in our local politics.

Require Monthly Campaign Reporting

Right now, Hawaii law allows candidates to report their campaign donations just twice a year. This is insufficient transparency. To rebuild trust in our political system, any campaign that receives or spends over $100,000 should be required to report its donations monthly.

Allow A “None of the Above” Vote

Nevada gives voters the option to vote “none of the above” in elections. While this rarely alters an election result, it gives the people an avenue to voice their frustration with their political choices. Too many Hawaii elections are uncontested. This reform offers a way for the public to signal their dissatisfaction to elected officials.

Term Limits

I have served in an elective body with term limits (the Honolulu City Council) and elective bodies with no term limits (the Hawaii State Legislature and U.S. Congress). Term limits bring a level of dynamism to government that is lacking in institutions without term limits.

These reforms will not completely eliminate the cancer of political corruption now spreading in Hawaii.

In my experience all candidates who first run for office — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal — do so for the right reasons. The lure of corruption comes with over-familiarity in office and a lack of worry over re-election. Term limits will help return competitive elections to Hawaii politics and reduce the siren temptation of bribes.

These reforms will not completely eliminate the cancer of political corruption now spreading in Hawaii. But these reforms will be the right steps toward rebuilding trust in our democracy.

Enacting these proposals would require Hawaii’s incumbent legislators to understand the desperate need for broad reform in our government and the deep mistrust our people now hold in our government’s institutions.

More importantly, establishing these ideas requires our people to demand an honest government and vote for reform, over more of the same. Until we vote for change, nothing will change, and Hawaii will only get more of the same corruption.

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About the Author

Charles Djou

Charles K. Djou is a former congressman, Honolulu city councilmember and Hawaii state legislator. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.


Latest Comments (0)

My perspective is that all 50 have the same issues with "corruption". It takes unified effort to bring down that house of cards.

jusbecuz · 9 months ago

What a bummer Charles didn't win against Caldwell. We wouldn't have all these costly mistakes and issues. Civil Beat could have helped us with that election. Digging up the dirty deeds in progress.

Concernedtaxpayer · 9 months ago

Wow. Had to read to the end to find the most obvious reform -- term limits. Give people a chance to choose, and they will vote for term limits. It's why the counties have term limits. That the legislature denies us term limits -- even opposing the constitutionally asked-for ConCon that would almost certainly institute term limits -- shows just how powerful is that single reform.

galenfox · 9 months ago

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