About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

The historic decision last month by the voters of Alaska to send Mary Peltola to the U.S. Congress has lessons for Hawaii.

Opinion article badgeThe Democrat, a former state legislator in the 49th state, defeated two Republicans in a special election to fill the term of the late Congressman Don Young. One of the GOP candidates was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and mayor as well as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.

It was held through a process known as ranked choice voting that allows voters to rank — first, second, third and so on — the candidates in a race. The first round of counting will determine if a candidate received 50% of the vote plus one more vote, allowing them to win the contest outright. If that does not happen, the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated.

“If you voted for that candidate, your vote goes to your next choice and you still have a say in who wins,” a helpful FAQ on the Alaska Division of Elections website explains. “If your first choice candidate was not eliminated, your vote stays with them. Votes are counted again. This keeps happening in rounds until two candidates are left and the one with the most votes wins.”

I bring this up because Hawaii is set to install ranked choice voting beginning in January under legislation signed into law by Gov. David Ige this summer. It’s an important step forward in possibly leveling the playing field and picking consensus candidates in a state that is dominated by one political party.

Common Cause Hawaii, League of Women Voters of Hawaii and the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs championed Senate Bill 2162, which was crafted by Sens. Karl Rhoads, Gil Keith-Agaran and Chris Lee.

A screenshot from YouTube showing a NBC News report on Mary Peltola's Alaska win.
Mary Peltola’s Alaska win was national news and shined a spotlight on ranked choice voting. Screenshot/2022

But RCV in Hawaii will only apply to special elections for federal office and for vacant county council seats, which don’t happen all that often. My hope is that the 50th state will look north to expand RCV to include more races.

Thanks to a ballot initiative approved in 2020, Alaska is now the first state to use RCV for all state and federal races — president, Congress, governor and lieutenant governor, and state House and Senate.

“We are the first and only jurisdiction to do so,” says Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections.

It will include a rematch in November for a full two-year term between Peltola, Palin and Nick Begich III, the lowest vote-getter in the Aug. 16 special election.

Ranked Choice Voting, Alaska Style

The Peltola election received national headlines because it not only featured the embarrassing loss for Palin but also represented a Democratic pickup in the tightly divided U.S. House.

She’s also the first Democrat elected to the House from Alaska since 1970, and the first Alaska-born and Alaska Native in Congress. Peltola is Yup’ik and grew up on the Kuskokwim River.

Not surprisingly, Peltola said publicly that she thinks RCV works just fine while Palin — whose campaign was shocked by the loss and described RCV as confusing — is demanding Begich, a Republican, drop out of the general. He says he won’t and is calling Palin “a quitter,” arguing that RCV shows voters have soured on her.

Meanwhile, fact-checkers shot down an argument from Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, who claimed, “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.’”

It is true that Palin in the first round received 30.9% of the votes to 27.8% for Begich and 39.7% for Peltola. But enough Begich voters made Peltola and not Palin — one of the most polarizing politicians in recent memory — their second choice on the ballot. In the final count, released Aug. 31, it was 51.5% for Peltola versus 48.5% for Palin.

Supporters of RCV say what it really reveals is that most Alaska voters found the system to be easy to learn. Another takeaway is that Republicans need to put forward more moderate or traditional candidates who can attract broader support statewide.

Hawaii Politics Could Benefit

The Hawaii State Elections Office would be well advised to explain how RCV will work. A good place to start is to follow what the Alaska Division of Elections has posted.

It is simple to follow and includes very helpful illustrations of what a RCV ballot looks like, a brief instructional video, translations into Spanish and seven indigenous languages and a list of tips and “mistakes to avoid.”

Examples of how to fill out RCV ballots in Alaska.
Examples of how to fill out RCV ballots in Alaska. Alaska Division of Elections

Here’s another lesson from Alaska to Hawaii, this one to the candidates themselves along with their backers: be kind.

While Peltola was a model of decorum, Alaska Public Media reported, “In the run-up to the election, Palin and Begich traded barbed comments in an attempt to sway Republican voters toward their side. Observers say that may have been counterproductive, with Palin’s comments alienating the Begich supporters she needed to win.”

I do hope that Hawaii lawmakers will seriously consider expanding RCV here. The enabling legislation explains that it “has been used effectively in the United States and around the world” including in Alaska, Maine, New York City, Australia, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The bill also points out that Hawaii’s voting systems include optical scanners that “can process ranked-choice voting with little or no difficulty.”

Think how these recent Hawaii elections — some special, most of them not, all of them important — might have turned out differently if RCV has been instituted:

  • In a 2002 special election to fill the remainder of the term of the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, fellow Democrat Ed Case won with a plurality of votes cast in a contest that featured Mink’s widower, John, Republican John Carroll and Whitney Anderson, and more than a dozen other candidates.
  • In early 2003, Case again prevailed in the special election for another two-year term, besting Anderson and Carroll again, Democrats Matt Matsunaga and Colleen Hanabusa, Republicans Barbara Marumoto and Bob McDermott, and Frank Fasi, who ran as a Republican. More than 30 other people were also on the ballot, some running as Greens, Libertarians, from other third parties or as nonpartisans.
  • In the 2006 Democratic primary, Mazie Hirono barely edged Hanabusa for the 2nd Congressional District race that also featured Matsunaga, Clayton Hee, Gary Hooser, Brian Schatz, Ron Menor, Nestor Garcia and two others.
  • In a 2010 special election to fill the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s term, Republican Charles Djou beat Hanabusa, Case and 11 others with a plurality of the votes.
  • In the 2014 Democratic primary, Mark Takai beat Donna Mercado Kim, Stanley Chang, Ikaika Anderson, Will Espero and Joey Manahan with a plurality of the votes cast.
  • In that same primary, Schatz narrowly edged Hanabusa in the Senate primary that also featured a third Democrat.
  • In the 2018 Democratic primary, Ed Case defeated Kim, Doug Chin, Kaniela Ing, Beth Fukumoto and Ernie Martin with a plurality.
  • In the 2022 Democratic primary, Sylvia Luke prevailed over Anderson, Keith Amemiya and Sherry Menor-McNamara, again with a plurality.

I am not making a judgment here on whether the best candidates won or lost those races. But even someone with a casual awareness of Hawaii politics might recognize many of the names listed above and diversity of their views.

Had RCV been in play — had voters had a chance to rank their preferred candidates — it is likely that at least some of these elections might have turned out differently, as well as the history and direction of modern Hawaii.

Read this next:

How Hawaii Could Be A Model Of Civic Legislative Virtue

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

We absolutely need ranked choice. Partisan and plurality voting are part of what's making politics toxic, as they discourage people from voting for anyone new, and creates a situation that forces candidates to compete aggressively for votes. When you consider this, it's easy to understand why debates are the way they are now, and why less people are voting.

chunmeista · 1 year ago

ALOHA CHAD: another excellent article. As you probably know, I, plus the Green Party, have been advocating RCV [Instant Runoff Voting IRV] for 30 years, for all races. We have proposed this progressive change for years at the Legislature, yet were ignored and it constantly failed. This year we testified that this bill is sorely lacking, yet it is planting a seed. In non-partisan races, RCV w/could eliminate the need for "primaries" and having only 2 candidates to choose in November. It may invite more candidates, so no representative would go unopposed when seeking re-election. It c/would eliminate the confusion voters feel during the primary when forced to chose only one political party in partisan races. Maine used RCV in 2020 to chose the POTUS! My understanding is that they use it for all races; in 2020 they also chose their U.S. Senator utilizing RCV. It has been used for many years in more than fifty jurisdictions throughout the United States. It has never been removed after voters experienced RCV. You are totally correct; the time to institute RCV in Hawai'i for all races, plus put an end to the concepts of "spoiler" and "voting for the lesser of two evils" is long overdue.

NNIKHILANANDA · 1 year ago

Back in the 2000s, I had first-hand experience with ranked-choice voting in an academic council election. Despite all voters being PhDs or PhD students, and thus presumably pretty smart, we received a lot of invalid ballots and had a lot of trouble tallying the results. Auditing the vote count in a ranked-choice election would probably be a mission impossible. Before I left, the council election switched to yet another novel balloting method whereby each voter gets as many votes at there are candidates and can distribute these votes among the candidates as they see fit. It would be a safe guess that this balloting method also resulted in a lot of invalid ballots, although tallying the results was quite a bit more straightforward than with the ranked-choice method.

Chiquita · 1 year ago

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