It’s Time To Scrap Voting ‘Yes With Reservations’ At The Legislature - Honolulu Civil Beat


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The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


For decades, Hawaii’s elected officials have relied on a voting process that is often deployed when addressing controversial bills. They vote yes “with reservations,” or WR, as it is known at the State Capitol.

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But votes with reservations are actually counted as “yes” votes anyway, so what’s the point? Well, if a bill turns out to be unpopular, legislators can then tell their constituents they weren’t completely on board in the first place.

In other words, the option lets legislators play both sides.

But the practice ultimately amounts to letting lawmakers weasel out of taking a stand. Instead, they should simply vote “aye” or “no,” as is the practice in legislatures nationally.

Appearing in Hawaii House of Representatives rules as early as the 1970s, the WR vote is a long-standing legislative tradition. The Senate also allows for voting WR.

In the 2022 session alone, legislators voted with reservations 935 times.

It’s not just the Legislature that allows for this practice. The Honolulu City Council allows it, too.

But the practice is not used beyond our shores. States on the West Coast do not provide legislators with a WR vote, for example. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures does not know of any other state that permits voting “with reservations.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki is seen in a reflection before the floor session adjourns during special session held at the Capitol.
A Hawaii House of Representatives floor session, where lawmakers are permitted to vote with reservations. It is a practice that has outlived its usefulness and serves no value to the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

One argument for allowing WR, former and current legislators say, is that it is useful in keeping a bill alive. An example is voting on bills to increase the minimum wage, something that actually happened this year when lawmakers raised it from $10.10 to $18 by 2028.

A lawmaker may not be comfortable with the proposed increase as the bill is going through committee. But rather than vote “no” and risk killing the bill, legislators who ultimately want to raise the wage instead vote with reservations. This signals to the bill’s next committee that they like the idea of a wage hike but the bill needs work.

Another argument is that a lot of WR votes on a bill will signal to the governor that support for a piece of legislation is lukewarm, and so he may be inclined to veto it.

But nothing says “I have a problem with this bill” more clearly than voting against it. Voting WR is a political sideshow, a form of kabuki theater that allows legislators to avoid acting responsibly.

‘Wiggle Room’

The practice of voting with reservations can happen any time there is a decision on legislation, including on the very last vote known as final reading. Voting WR on that final vote is the sort of thing that elected officials love, says Colin Moore, associate professor and director of Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“They can avoid having to take an up or down vote where there’s no wiggle room, even though, ironically, that’s essentially their job,” he said. “It kind of muddies the legislative record a little bit, because it allows legislators to communicate different messages to different audiences. With WR, legislators can appease their constituents and those who hold more senior positions in the legislative power structure.”

But the leverage granted to legislators by the WR rule comes at the expense of the public.

“It’s one of these legislative maneuvers that really exists for the convenience of legislators,” said Moore. “It doesn’t serve the public’s interest in any way.”

The Senate gallery, where visitors to the Capitol can watch senators deliberate on bills but also vote WR, leaving the public unsure as to where legislators actually stand. Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2019

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said of WR, “It doesn’t really create the transparency we need in our elected offices. It doesn’t allow us to understand why votes are being traded, creating this opaqueness in the process.”

In this way, the practice could allow bad bills to move along when they really should not, she said.

Bully Tactics

Among the most highly contested bills in the 2022 session was Senate Bill 2510, and it illustrates well the problem with voting WR.

Its proponents contend that it will help the state transition to its 2045 goal of a 100% renewable energy portfolio, but critics argue that it will do no such thing and actually illustrates the ability of a single powerful lawmaker to bully his colleagues into supporting his bills.

It will be up to Gov. David Ige to decide the fate of SB 2510, which awaits a June 27 deadline for him to decide what bills he will veto. But the legislation shows how lawmakers struggle to reach consensus on bills and essentially try to avoid accountability.

Of the 76 legislators who voted during final reading for SB 2510, nine voted “no” but 13 voted “yes, with reservations.” What kind of message does that send to Ige? Not a clear message at all.

“The Legislature is a place where people are supposed to make a decision, yes or no,” said Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters Hawaii. “So why not just step up and say yes or no?”

Lawmakers should amend Senate and House rules to rid the Legislature of voting with reservations. If not, the Legislature will continue to improperly represent the public by passing harmful bills for a small measure of political cover.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Totally, its a yes or no question. Black or white, no middle ground to wiggle around for the public. Like any test; yes, or no, or as in the Matrix, blue or red pill.

wailani1961 · 1 week ago

I couldn't agree more. During the early stages of the Big Wind struggle, the final vote on the undersea cable (from Lana'i to O'ahu; remember that ALL the wind-generated power was FROM Lana'i TO O'ahu), the vote was 12 "yes," 10 "With Reservations," and three "No." So if those "with reservations" had simply voted "NO," the cable bill would have died, and the years-long struggle against that absurd, get-Murdock-money project would have died.

Rkaye · 1 week ago

It's like abstaining from voting, it should be a "nay" or a "no with reservations." That way reservations are clearly communicated.

surferx808 · 2 weeks ago

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