Here's What Hawaii Can Learn From Other States On Publicly Funded Elections - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Chad Blair

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

The system needs to be legally sound, properly regulated and substantially funded so candidates can compete with private money.

Tom Collins, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, says the state’s public financing of campaigns was initially “incredibly successful.”

“At one point, if my memory is right, we had a very high percentage — 60% — of the Legislature elected with clean funding,” he said.

Established by a ballot initiative narrowly approved in 1998, Collins said the funding system helped elect two governors — Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republican Jan Brewer — and many other officials across a range of offices.

Currently, however, Collins said that “only literally a handful” of sitting legislators in Arizona use public funding for their campaigns. What changed things was a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that found that part of the program’s funding formula was unconstitutional.

(Colin Moore/UHERO/2023)

According to Reclaim the American Dream — a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on political and economic reform — the court zeroed in on a provision in Arizona’s system that offered an increase in matching funds to publicly funded candidates.

The provision was intended “to offset large infusions of private donations” to candidates operating outside the system. But the extra infusion of public money, the court decided, “unconstitutionally infringed the rights of large independent donors.”

Collins said the court ruling resulted in a cut of about two-thirds of the funding that had been available to candidates. He said that there has been little community or political will since then to pressure the Arizona Legislature to amend the law to provide more funding.

This week the Hawaii Legislature faces a deadline to hear a bill that would establish a comprehensive, publicly financed system for all qualifying candidates for state and county offices. Under Senate Bill 1543, candidates who obtain a minimum number of $5 donations from voters would be barred from taking contributions from any other source but the state.

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The experience of Arizona and other states suggests several takeaways for Hawaii: The system must be legally sound and properly regulated, and candidates who enroll in the system must receive enough money to make them competitive against opponents taking private money.

As Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, wrote in his February analysis on publicly financed campaigns, Hawaii has had a system of partial public funding for more than four decades yet few candidates participate because the program doesn’t provide them with “sufficient resources.”

Any proposed system of public financing, he argues, should provide the funding needed to match privately financed candidates.


“Generous public financing for campaigns in Hawaii would likely create more political competition by leveling the playing field and could be supported by a relatively modest appropriation from general funds,” Moore wrote.

The amounts of funds available under Hawaii’s partial funding system have not been adjusted since 1995, according to Kristin Izumi-Nitao, executive director of the Campaign Spending Commission. In her testimony in support of SB 1543, Izumi-Nitao said that the balance in the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund as of June 30 was just $1.6 million.

Long History

Campaign finance reform is not new. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that after George Washington bought hard cider for friends in 1757, the Virginia House of Burgesses — the colonial legislature — enacted a law that prohibited candidates from giving voters refreshments or gifts — “most likely the first such regulation ever.”

The NCSL reported added, “Whether, and how, states regulate campaign finance varies greatly.”

Hawaii’s proposed legislation cites the Arizona “clean elections” program of 1998, the one in Maine created in 1996 — the first in the nation — and programs later adopted in Connecticut and New Mexico. Like Arizona, Maine’s system was set up by popular referendum — a mechanism that does not exist at the state level in Hawaii. Connecticut’s system came from its legislature, as did New Mexico’s.

Jen Lancaster, communications director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said the state’s system has been “very positive and successful among candidates. One of its main purposes is to help expand the number and types of people who can actually run for office, because we consider it a citizens legislature. Not everyone can run a big, expensive election.”

Lancaster said Maine has “a really strong” commission for ethics and campaign spending.

“They know the laws and they know how to communicate” to the public and qualifying candidates, she said.

Maine’s 1996 act allowed participating candidates to receive “matching funds” when they were outspent by opponents or by independent spenders, according to a recent report from Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

“Courts initially upheld the matching funds system in 1999, but changing winds in the judiciary resulted in a 2011 ruling eliminating this provision,” the report says.

Four years later Maine voters approved a replacement “supplemental funding” system — the first of its kind in the country.

Since then, the report identified some trends that had emerged (with the caveat that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted some recent races):

  • In 2020, “A record 63% of women candidates won their races, yielding a total of 83 women legislators, an all-time record. 69% of elected women used Clean Elections, compared to 51% of elected men.”
  • “26 out of 35 Senate Democratic candidates opted for Clean Elections in 2020 — a strong endorsement of the program but still a decline from the total of 31 using it in 2018. The fraction of winning Senate Democratic candidates using Clean Elections slipped to 74% in 2020 — the lowest in the data.”
  • “There were only 62 House races in 2020 where privately funded candidates ran against Clean Elections candidates — the lowest since 2010.”
  • “A total of 122 Democratic candidates used Clean Elections, while about half as many Republicans (62) qualified for the program. This continues a trend since 2000 with substantial use in both parties, but lower use among the GOP candidates. 54% of unenrolled candidates chose the Clean Elections option.”
  • “Republican Senate candidates were more likely to utilize Clean Elections than those in the House. Republicans only ran 125 candidates in the House, leaving 26 seats uncontested.”

Said Lancaster, “The act is over 20 years old and is a strong staple of our local and statewide elections. It would be hard to imagine the state without it — candidates going door to door, talking one on one. It has helped focus on the people and voters instead of big donor and corporations to get money.”

There have been challenges, however. In January a candidate for Maine’s legislature was indicted for aggravated forgery in an unsuccessful attempt to get signatures from donors so that his campaign could qualify for the state’s Clean Election Act.

Hawaii’s Bill

The bill to set up a system to publicly finance all qualifying candidates for state and county offices in Hawaii has not been scheduled in the House Finance Committee. The office of Rep. Kyle Yamashita, the Finance chair, declined to comment on the status of SB 1543, which has to be heard this week in order to survive an internal legislative deadline.

The bill’s author, Sen. Karl Rhoads, said in an email Friday he did not know whether Yamashita would advance it, adding, “I hope he does.”

Evan Weber of Our Hawaii, a hui of groups including the Sierra Club of Hawaii that has lobbied heavily for SB 1543’s passage, said Sunday that he remained optimistic, too: “There is no good reason not to give this bill a hearing.”

A recent tweet from Our Hawaii.

If Yamashita does hear and pass the measure, it will have to be reviewed again by the Senate, which earlier passed the original bill but has since been amended. SB 1543’s companion, House Bill 967, never was heard while three other bills to increase partial public financing for all state offices are dead as well this session.

As is typical in legislation, the dollar amounts to pay for a comprehensive financing system for the next two fiscal years are currently blank. Should SB 1543 survive until conference committee, when the House and Senate work out their differences on the remaining bills, the dollar amounts will certainly play a critical role in determining the bill’s fate.

Reclaim America says the most commonly used method to finance public funding of campaigns is the tax return check-off “that lets voters decide whether to donate to public financing.” That’s the case for the Hawaii Election Campaign Fund, which currently asks tax filers to indicate on state tax forms whether they want $3 to go to the fund.

Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but NCSL reported that there are many factors for success or failure of campaigns. They include:

  • “The candidate’s personal attributes and history, especially whether he or she is an incumbent.”
  • “A district’s political tilt, which if heavily weighted to one party makes the outcome unlikely to change, no matter how much money the other side puts in.”
  • “Changing demographics, which may or may not lead to changing political leanings, in that political preferences are not immutable for any person or group.”

Read this next:

Hawaii’s House Speaker Has Way, Way Too Much Power

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About the Author

Chad Blair

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

Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii needs to have popular referendums here. What is the legislature afraid of?

Scotty_Poppins · 5 months ago

The public financing bill, SB1543 is in the House Finance committee. A hearing has not been scheduled. Civil Beat published "Hawaii's Longest-Serving State Lawmaker Talks About The True Power Of Legislators" about Senator Les Ihara on April 2. In that article, Senator Ihara is quoted, " I don’t think chairs have dictatorial powers, at least not by the rules. For example, a Senate rule requires a chair to hear a bill if a majority of committee members request it." Members of the Senate Finance committee include:Chair YamashitaVice Chair KitagawaAiuChunCochranGarrettKahaloaKilaKobayashiLamosaoMorikawaNishimotoTakenouchiAlcosWardA majority in a committee of 15 is 8 members. Today, Monday and part of tomorrow are the days on which the bill must be scheduled for a hearing to meet the 48-hour requirement for decking on Thursday, April 6.

trouble_ahead · 5 months ago

Story after story about corruption, bullying, and the deteriorating condition of our state makes me wonder where the surprise is here. I doubt incumbents are going to give up power voluntarily, especially at a time when they are growing more unpopular by the minute.

SleepyJoe · 5 months ago

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