Hawaii’s System Of Public Funding For Elections Doesn’t Work - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.


The arrests of former Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro and prominent Honolulu businessman Dennis Mitsunaga were important reminders that a great deal of public corruption in Hawaii is tied to campaign fundraising.

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As in much of the nation, our political system is plagued by a culture of favors and bribes because politicians rely on wealthy and well-connected donors to finance their campaigns.

It’s also contributed to an electoral environment that is less competitive than in many states.

In 2020, 95% of incumbents in Hawaii were reelected. Only four out of 81 were defeated by challengers. That’s an astonishing rate of success.

Now, there are lots of reasons why incumbents win. They are often talented leaders, they are familiar to voters in the district, and they have a network of dedicated supporters.

But they also have access to far more money. Since 1994, incumbents for the Hawaii House of Representatives spent $57,883 on average in each election, while challengers spent only $16,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This was recognized as a problem over 40 years ago, which is why a public funding system was enshrined in the Hawaii Constitution in 1978, making Hawaii an early leader in clean elections.

Initially, our partial public funding system played a significant role in local races. It generously supported the gubernatorial campaigns of Frank Fasi and Jean King in 1982, Patsy Mink in 1986, and Ben Cayetano in 1994, among many others.

Yet in recent years, fewer and fewer candidates have relied on the program to finance their campaigns. In 2020, only $85,362 in public funds — a paltry amount — were disbursed to 16 campaigns, representing just 5% of all candidates.

Is Partial Public Funding Working?

The figure below shows the amounts disbursed in constant dollars and the number of candidates receiving public funds since 1980:

Hawaii public funding campaign graf for Moore Essay July 2022

In the early years of the program, it provided core funding for many candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and mayor, disbursing as much as $1.7 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1994 alone.

The program became even more influential after 1995 when competitive matching funds were made available to state House, state Senate, and county council candidates for the first time.

So why do few candidates take advantage of the program today?

Because the level of public funding is far too low, particularly for the legislative races where it could really make a difference.

We need to review the current rules to understand why.

To qualify for partial funding in a House race, a candidate first must agree to comply with the spending limit for that district. The candidate is then required to raise at least $1,500 in contributions of $100 or less.

Hawaii determines the public funds available to a candidate through a complex system that multiples the number of registered voters in each district by a specific dollar value set by law. For House and Senate candidates, the amount of public funding is 15% of the total expenditure limit in each district.

In House District 1, for example, the state will match donations of $100 or less up to $3,792, because the expenditure limit for that race is $25,283 in the primary and general elections.

The problem is that the level of public support hasn’t increased in any meaningful way in nearly 30 years.

Expenditure limits that made sense in the mid-1990s are far too low today.

By my calculations, the 13 House candidates who successfully beat an incumbent over the last decade spent $39,500 on average after adjusting for inflation. Relying entirely on public money wouldn’t provide enough money to make most candidates even remotely competitive.

The level of public funding is far too low, particularly for the legislative races where it could really make a difference.

It’s time to try something new — and there are three excellent alternatives we should consider.

No. 1 — Full Public Funding

Since 2000 Arizona and Maine have led the way with their “Clean Elections Program.” In Arizona, candidates for state legislative offices are required to collect 200 contributions of $5 to demonstrate the viability of their candidacy. Once they qualify, the state provides a full grant of $17,293 to fund the primary campaign and $25,940 for the general.

Some claim that these programs provide too much money to candidates with little public support, but the most comprehensive study doesn’t support that argument and found that Arizona’s program made elections more competitive.

No. 2 — Super-Match Programs

Another approach seeks to amplify the power of small donors. In New York City, contributions are matched on an 8-to-1 basis up to $175. This means that a $100 donation is worth $900 to a campaign.

In 2021, New York City elected the most representative council in its history — and generous public funding likely played a major role in this outcome. Studies show that the program increased the number and diversity of small donors. What’s more, candidates engaged more people because even small donors could make financially significant contributions.

No. 3 — Citizen Vouchers

The most innovative public funding system is the city of Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program. Prior to an election, Seattle sends each registered voter four vouchers worth $25. Voters then choose which candidates receive their vouchers, and the city transfers the funds directly to the campaigns.

Recent research suggests that the program is a smashing success. The overall number of donors increased by 350%. It also increased the number of candidates, presumably because having a network of wealthy friends was no longer a requirement for running for office.

Perhaps most surprising, fewer incumbents ran for reelection, while those who did faced a closer final vote than before.

There’s little doubt that these programs are effective, but they would require us to devote far more state resources to fund elections.

How much?

In Seattle, 5.2% of all the Democracy Vouchers were redeemed. If we assumed a similar rate of participation in Hawaii, the program would cost us about $4.3 million per election.

Yes, these are all expensive solutions, but they are also effective ones. Any one of these programs would likely lead to increased participation and more competitive elections, while limiting the corrupting influence of large donors.

It seems like money well spent to me.


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About the Author

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.


Latest Comments (0)

The $25 voucher idea has several benefits. (1) Attracts voters and increases voter registration(2) Donors increased substantially(3) EmpowermentThe super match program is another great idea in which the state match is 8 to 1. What a difference this idea would make! A more participatory election with Hawaii residents actually being donors! $3 on the state tax form will never provide enough public funding for new candidates. We know the rules need to change, in order to get change.

susan.yahoo.com · 4 months ago

Implementing any of these would be a fantastic idea. We need to start taking all the steps we can to reduce the influence of money in politics as well as reducing the amount of time and energy that lawmakers spend on raising money. That time and energy is much better spent on their actual jobs as well as plain campaigning.

jason · 4 months ago

Why can't things just be straightforward, simply worded and easy to comprehend here? Why do we need complex formulas for so many things and misleading, obfuscating legalese on ballots? If anything, with so many immigrants in this state (and our weak public education system), there ought to be a law on simplification of wording for public consumption and comprehension.

WhatMeWorry · 4 months ago

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