How About Ranked-Choice Voting And Open Primaries For Hawaii?

Chad Blair :: Honolulu Civil Beat

Hawaii made significant progress on election reform by implementing voting by mail. The result: Total voter registration in the general election grew from 437,664 in 2016 (the previous presidential election year) to 579,784, while total turnout was nearly 70%, up more than 11 percentage points.

The greater interest in the 2020 elections was certainly influenced by the historic Trump-Biden battle, and voting by mail just made good sense during the pandemic.

But Hawaii’s new system makes it easier to vote and bodes well for greater citizen participation in a state where such interest has been anemic for too long.

Now, the Hawaii Legislature can build on that momentum in the 2021 session by giving serious attention to two other election reform ideas that are slowly catching on elsewhere in the country: nonpartisan open primaries and ranked-choice voting. Both have the potential to help voters get the elected officials they most prefer.

Both “pro-democracy” measures, as an advocacy group describes them , were narrowly approved last month in Alaska. Ballot Measure 2 took two years and about $7 million from supporters to pass. It requires Alaska’s election system “to be entirely rewritten” within two years, says the Anchorage Daily News:

Instead of two primary elections — one for Republicans and another for everyone else — all candidates for an office will be put into a single election. The top four vote-getters from that election, regardless of political party, will advance to the general election. In November, voters will rank those four candidates, picking one as their first choice, another as their second, and so on down the list.

Alaska’s new law is expected to be challenged in the courts, especially by Republicans who dominate state politics. As Alaska Public Media reported, “Supporters say the change would reduce political parties’ power to shape the results, as they would lose the ability to block members of other parties from participating in their primaries, like Republicans do now.”

Still, Alaska is now the fourth state to adopt nonpartisan, open primaries. The others are California, Washington and Nebraska. As for ranked-choice voting, Maine is the only other state besides Alaska that has it — in Maine’s case, it’s for U.S. senators and representatives, governor and the state legislature.

Complex, Confusing Laws

Making it easier to understand how primaries work is important. As the National Conference of State Legislatures observes , “The laws governing state primaries are complex and nuanced to say the least, and state primary laws have been a cause of confusion among voters and election administrators alike.”

NCSL categorizes primaries in six ways: closed , partially closed , partially open , open to unaffiliated voters , open or top-two . Hawaii is considered to be one of 15 states with an open primary, but it is a bit misleading, in my view.

Hawaii does not ask voters to choose parties on their voter registration forms, which means they can select any particular party’s ballot privately when they vote. But voters can only pick a single party’s ballot.

In the 2020 primary, that meant selecting from a total of seven parties: Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian and three others including the nonpartisan ballot. (An eighth recognized party in the state, the Constitution party, did not field any candidates this year.)

Picking only a single party ballot meant that a registered voter living in, say, the Ewa Beach area could not vote for Green Party candidate Calvin Griffin for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, Democrat Rida Cabanilla Arakawa for the state Senate seat and nonpartisan Ryan Uehara for the state House. Instead, the voter could only pick one party ballot, something that was established at the 1978 Constitutional Convention in order to protect voter privacy and to encourage participation in elections.

I am not making a judgment as to whether Griffin, Cabanilla Arakawa (a House rep trying to become a senator) and Uehara were the better candidates. But I think a lack of choices has led to Hawaii nearly always voting for incumbents or familiar names — in this case, the eventual winners of those respective races: incumbent Democrat Rep. Ed Case, incumbent Republican state Sen. Kurt Fevella and former state Rep. Matt LoPresti, a Democrat.

In the general election voters are not restricted to voting for candidates from just one party. Put another way, they get to vote for whom they want, but only once the candidates survive the primary. That’s why many primary elections often are more important than general elections in our islands.

It’s Our Party

Local Democrats, who have long controlled the political levers in the state, will likely oppose nonpartisan open primaries.

Indeed, Party Chair Tyler Dos Santos-Tam told me that his party has “long taken the position that the Democratic Party primaries should be open only to those who register as Party members when they register to vote (as is done in many states around the country) or people who sign up as Democratic Party members.”

In 2013, Democrats sued to overturn Hawaii’s open primary election, alleging that the party’s First Amendment associational rights were being violated.

“Why should (a party opponent) have the same right to nominate our candidates as the hardest-working, longest-suffering, most-donating member? And yet, that’s the law,” said Tony Gill, the attorney representing the party in a 2014 interview .

Democrats ultimately lost the case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

It also seems unlikely that a Legislature dominated by Democrats might consider nonpartisan open primaries, although a bill from Rep. Sylvia Luke in 2019 that would have accomplished as much did get a hearing before it was shelved.

Which brings us to ranked-choice voting. Several bills in the 2019-2020 sessions called for setting up such a system. The one that made it the farthest in terms of being heard would have established ranked choice for special federal elections and special elections of vacant county council seats.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the bills’s author, said he will probably submit a similar bill next month.

“I think it has a lot going for it,” he said, pointing to two examples where Hawaii voters may not have elected the most preferred candidate.

One race was the special election in 2010 to complete the remainder of U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s term when he resigned to run for governor.

Republican Charles Djou won the winner-take-all contest with 39% of the vote, although Democrats Colleen Hanabusa (with almost 31%) and Case (with almost 28%) showed how a Democratic candidate was preferred in a large field. Djou would lose the general election that year to Hanabusa and would lose subsequent congressional races, while Case — who formerly represented the 2nd Congressional District — now represents the 1st.

The other race Rhoads mentioned was the special election that same year to complete the remaining two years of Honolulu City Councilman Todd Apo, who resigned to work for Disney’s Aulani Resort. Tom Berg, a Tea Party activist and a bit of a live wire , won the race with just 18% of the vote. He was not re-elected.

“Those races are the ones where it shows how special elections can result in really strange results,” said Rhoads. “There is no way a Republican should have been elected in CD1, and Berg won with just a small percentage.”

Rep. Mark Nakashima, Rhoads judiciary chair counterpart in the House, said he is “supportive” of considering ranked-choice-voting legislation next year but would not make any decision until legislation is introduced. But he previously backed similar measures in the House.

Rhoads said he’d like to see how ranked choice works out for special elections before taking it “to the next level” for other elections.

As for nonpartisan open primaries, he said, “There is something to be said for the two highest finishers in a primary moving on no matter who they are. But it would be a fairly major departure for us.”

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