Legislature should democratize itself before meddling in city elections

I’m inclined to agree with the Honolulu City Council’s unanimous resolution that the Legislature should butt out of the city’s electoral business and shelve a bill forcing “instant runoff” voting in municipal special elections.

Sponsoring lawmakers with backing from some civic groups say they’re worried that the winner-take-all elections to fill midterm vacancies usually draw large fields of candidates and produce winners who fall short of a majority.

HB 638 would require voters in city special elections to mark three ranked choices instead of voting for one candidate, and the candidates with the least votes would be eliminated until somebody ended up with a majority.

Council members say it’s a violation of home rule and other critics claim it’s a power play by the Democratic Party to give its candidates more bites at the apple after recent winner-take-all special elections were won by outsiders such as Congressman Charles Djou, Mayor Peter Carlisle and Councilman Tom Berg over the Democratic entries.

Whatever the motives, there’s no evidence of a serious problem that needs to be fixed; two of our last three presidents were elected with less than a majority in three-way races and Ben Cayetano was elected Hawai‘i governor that way.

The proposed Rube Goldberg system would add unnecessary complexities when it’s already difficult to get voters to participate in these elections and mark their ballots correctly.

If the Legislature wants to bring more democracy to replacing elected officials who leave office in midterm, it should worry first about reforming its own system on the state level.

Legislative vacancies aren’t filled by elections at all, but by party bosses putting up three candidates from which the governor must choose with no voter involvement.

A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled to markup the bill at 10:30 a.m. today in room 325.

Update: The conference was continued until Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. in room 325.

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26 Comments on “Legislature should democratize itself before meddling in city elections”

  1. zzzzzz Says:

    I’ve long been an advocate of reforming elections to eliminate the need for two elections, so I’m glad to hear that this type of election is being discussed.

    Among other benefits, at least some forms of elections that eliminate primaries make it easier to vote against a candidate one finds particularly abhorrent.

    I agree that the State legislature should start by looking at State elections first, but if State funds are used to pay for the elections, that mitigates against the home rule argument.

  2. Earl of Sandwich Says:

    I notice you don’t mention the main sponsor of this bill. You’re usually such a fan.

  3. OahuSophist Says:

    Did you make the same characterization of the public funding pilot program on the big island?

    And do you REALLY mean it when you say it’s fine if someone wins an election without a clear majority? Just because it’s happened before doesn’t negate the fact that it’s not right.

    The city council members don’t like IRV because so many of them won in similar fashions (they won by a plurality, rather than a clear majority).

    I don’t think it’s off the mark to say that, if we had Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for Presidential Elections, Gore, not Bush, would have won the 2000 election and he would have done it with a clear enough majority to avoid interference from the Supreme Court.

    IRV is pretty straight forward: When you go to the voting booth, instead of being forced to pick the “lesser of two evils,” you can vote with confidence for the candidate you really want. If that candidate is the lowest vote-getter after the first round of counting, they’re knocked off and another “round” of voting takes place…. And so on until one candidate receives a clear majority of the votes cast. As the name suggests, the system is similar in fashion to an actual run-off, but without the hassle and cost of holding multiple elections.

    I find it hard to believe that you have real problems with this system, or do you really mean to say that it’s OK that an overwhelming majority of people in the district didn’t Tom Berg to represent them?

  4. Richard Gozinya Says:

    Who cares,we don’t vote much anyway,except maybe American Idol and Dancing with Stars.

    Gonfonit, let’s just implement telephone voting already and institutionalize our practice of making political choices based on name recognition,free food events and,of course, the tee shirt design. /snark.

  5. David Shapiro Says:

    Sophist, it’s really not the same as a regular runoff, in which the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general and all voters get to pick one or the other. In an instant runoff, if there are nine candidates and if I choose nos. 7, 8 and 9, I’m disenfranchized in the later rounds of the instant runoff and don’t have a vote because I don’t have a candidate left in the game. I don’t get to vote on whatever candidates are left as I would in a regular runoff. Each round not only has a decreasing number of candidates, but a decreasing number of voters. Read the bill. It’s a convoluted process that will be sorted out by computers and raise new concerns about computational errors. Not worth the trouble.

    zzzzz, I believe the city clerk, not the state elections office, is responsible for special council elections.

  6. zzzzzz Says:

    OahuSophist, any pro/con on IVR vs. MVP-type voting (x points for 1st place votes, y (<x) points for 2nd, etc)?

    Dave, wouldn't MVP-type voting give you more say in the winner, especially if your first choice were vote-getter 9 of 9?

    I favor single elections as a replacement for primary/general elections because of the lower cost and, I would hope, shorter campaigns. I also think a single campaign somewhat lessens the advantage of the better-financed candidates.

  7. Rob Richie Says:

    Instant runoff voting (instantrunoff.com) is one of the issues my organization FairVote works on. To respond to some of what’s here, note that:

    1) Instant runoff voting is very straightforward. The math is basically like American Idol or any number of such shows. The candidate in last is eliminated, and backers of that candidate have their ballot added to the totals of their next choice.

    2) Is it fine for someone to win just because of a split vote of the majority? Think of how it feels to be a voter in such races — being torn about whether to support a John Anderson in 1980, a Ross Perot in 1992, a Ralph Nader in 2000 and so on. IRV can allow an average of 7 candidates in Australia’s legislative elections with it and not have anyone talk about “spoilers” — and no winners who would have lost to their top opponent in a one-on-one race.

    3. Reader “David Shapiro” suggests that if you limit your rankings to three and don’t rank any of the top candidates, that your vote won’t affect which of those top candidates wins. Well, if you use the current system, you limit your vote to only one candidate, and you are much less likely to have an effect on the outcome than with IRV.

    4. You can see examples of it in action in San Francisco and Oakland here — note that last year, it was a key factor in Oakland electing its first woman mayor, Jean Quan:

  8. Rob Richie Says:

    “zzzz”: You ask about a MVP, point-kind of system compared to IRV. The problem with that system, along with any system where you can’t indicate support for a second candidate without that counting against the chances of your first choice, is that people will stop using the system as it was intended.

    As an example, the Oscars now use instant runoff voting for Best Picture (one of literally thousands of significant uses of IRV in non-governmental elections, including more than 60 colleges and universities and the leadership elections of the American Political Science Association and many other large large associations). But it’s new, and some Academy voters assume it’s some kind of point system. And once they do, they start talking about gaming it. See this blogpost from one of Hollywood’s leading pundits on how IRV is not a point system and there’s no point trying to game it — he couldn’t write anything like this if it was a point system or something like approval voting:

  9. Michael Says:

    I think we have too many Chiefs and not enough Indians to begin with. Or Wannabees! I would just ask, How?

  10. shaftalley Says:

    a big problem is a one party rule in hawaii.and well connected special interests.and honolulu city council disrespects free speech.

  11. Kolea Says:

    Coupla points:

    The top people pushing this bill are the lobbyists for the “good government” groups, Common Cause and the Americans for Democratic Action and the chief sponsor was Senator Les Ihara. None of those folks can reasonably be called agents of some Democratic Party conspiracy. (But don’t let facts get in the way of a good rant.)

    Dave says the Lege should democratize the way legislative vacancies are filled, claiming the process is now controlled by “party bosses.” I know it is fun to yell about the “party bosses” running everything behind the scenes, but whatever the faults of the newer system, the decisions are being made at the very LOWEST level of the party organization. The officers of the PRECINCT clubs in the affected district assemble, interview prospective nominees, go into private session and vote for 3 names. The party leaders play no role beyond giving guidance on procedure and then forwarding the names onto the Governor.

    Whatever the flaws of the newer system, it is much more fair than the previous system. The law requires the new appointee be from the same political party as the former office holder. If THAT requirement is appropriate, who is more likely to pick a qualified replacement, the local party organization in the district or a Governor from the opposing political party? (When a Governor is from the SAME party, they can send word of their preference for consideration by the local party members).

    Under the old system, when Representative Ken Hiraki resigned, Governor Lingle had totally freedom to appoint whomever she wanted, provided they had signed a Democratic Party card and lived in the district. She picked Bev Harbin, a member of the Republican Party, who simply went into Democratic Party headquarters and signed a membership card.

    Lingle had actively campaigned for Republican Colin Wong against Hiraki in the previous election and Wong was likely to run agiain in the next election. What incentive did Lingle have to pick a strong Democratic candidate well-qualified to serve the voters of the district?

    The local Democrats in the district, on the other hand, wanted someone appointed capable of winning pubic approval enough to win the next election. SO the interests of the local party and those of the public in the district were MUCH more closely aligned than those of the Governor.

    Dave wants the legislators to “fix” the new appointment process. I missed the spot where he suggested a possible improvement. Is he calling for special elections? If so, he should say so directly.

    The main objection to IRV in Hawaii is coming from Republicans. Dave repeats their arguments. Because they have difficulty winning majority support, they prefer a system that fractures majority opinion and allows for the victory of a candidate with minority support.

    For all his grumbling about Democratic “party bosses,” the Democrats do NOT control who runs under their banner. We have too many qualified candidates, each with their core backers and cannot, even if we wanted, prevent our candidates from splitting the base of Democratic voters. The Republicans, on the other hand, have few qualified candidates. And their “party bosses” can easily tell their candidates where they are allowed to run. Just look at the primaries. The Democrats are always having serious primary battles. How often do the Republicans have a serious primary battle?

    So they support the current simple plurality system as one which increases the chances a cohesive minority can prevail over a more chaotic majority. IRV would allow the majority of voters to decide.

    It is because IRV helps a majority decision emerge the Republicans, and apparently Dave, oppose it.

  12. Michael Says:

    What about the mainland Democrats who live here?

    There is always one in the bunch that does not play follow the leader.

  13. zzzzzz Says:

    @Bob Richie– Thanks for the elucidation.

    However, IRV is not like “American Idol.” IRV in that case would make for a very short season. And I don’t think IRV allows for voters to change their mind after each round, or to vote for multiple candidates in any round.

  14. Rob Richie Says:

    zzzzzz –You’re quite right. I didn’t mean to suggest that IRV involves months of voting the ‘last person off’and having a new vote. But the __logic__ behind is the same. Person in last loses, and backers of that candidate have their ballot added to totals of their next choice.

  15. Kolea Says:

    The Senate version of the bill is kinda quirky. They limit the number of rounds to four (not three). To imagine how this might work, think back to the Council race Tom Berg won with only 18% of the vote. Four rounds would have eliminated about half the 14 candidates, but none of the remaining candidates would have had anything approaching a majority of the votes.

    Common Cause and the ADA proposed amending the bill to eliminate all but the top four vote-getters and apply IRV to them. Senator Hee apparently feels the decision to only include the top four is somewhat arbitrary. But is unable to see that limiting the IRV to only four rounds is at least as arbitrary, but has the disadvantage of probably not producing a majority winner, something the ADA? Common Cause system would provide.

  16. zzzzzz Says:

    How many voters do you think would make the effort to learn enough about all the candidates to rank all of them, e.g.,14 of them as in the council race to which Kolea alluded?

    How would IRV handle a lot of voters just picking their top 1 to 5 candidates in such a race, and not ranking anyone else?

  17. Kolea Says:


    IN each round of voting, the candidate receiving the lowest number of votes is eliminated. Ballots cast for that candidate are then examined their votes shift to their next choice. Each time your preferred candidate is eliminated, your next preference receives your vote.

    If a voter only ranks 5 choices and all 5 end up being eliminated because they receive fewer votes than other candidates, the voter no longer has a say in the election.

    But the system DID allow for consideration of their 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th choices. Under the current system, only their first choice vote is given any consideration. And if their first choice candidate is not the highest vote-getter in a split field, they have NO option for expressing their second choice. So IRV keeps them in the decision-making, keeps them effective “enfranchised” for as long as they indicate a preference.

    Should a voter decide they want to limit consideration of their preferences to a smaller number, they can do so. Their ballot remains valid and effective, so long as ANY of their choices remain viable.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Dave grumbles that the State would be imposing IRV on counties. I can think of no state-level elections which do not provide for a run-off. For most state races, there is a partisan primary, followed by a General Election. For non-partisan offices, OHA and, until recently, BOE, there was still a run-off.

    Honolulu County has had a spate of single round special elections: the 2010 Mayor’s race and several council special elections. In each case, the voting was set up in such a way to reduce the possibility of a majority winner. Why was the special Mayoral election not conducted with a first round coinciding with the Primary and allowing for a run-off in the General if no one attained a majority in the first round? The regular Mayor’s race is handled that way.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    The current simple plurality election is very undemocratic. Dave basically admits as much when he says it makes it easier for elections “to be won by outsiders.” Let’s think that through a bit. Dave appears to be saying these candidates were less likely to win in a regular, two-round election.

    In other words, Dave joins the Republicans in their frustration that a majority of Hawaii voters seem to want to vote for Democrats and wants to inject enough randomness into the process to thwart majority opinion.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The Legislature is giving serious thought to IRV as a solution to the current flukish and undemocratic simple plurality system. But rather than make a complete shift to IRV for all elections, they are looking for a limited set of circumstances for testing it out and seeing how receptive voters are to the system and to allow the problems to emerge. County-level, single round special elections are the best option for running this as a limited “pilot project.” Whatever complaints critics might launch against IRV, it is clearly more democratic than the current system being used for these elections.

  18. David Shapiro Says:

    One man, five votes. How democratic. I’m good with the old tried and true he/she who gets the most votes wins (and don’t give me Bush v. Gore, which was a different kettle of fish from Oahu council races).

  19. Kolea Says:


    You have gotten so many things wrong on this, I am not sure you have recovered from your cold.

    Imagine there were ten people running for President and we were assigned the task of finding out which of the ten candidates had the support from the most people. One way, the one you appear to support, would be to put them all on the ballot and the one who gets the most votes in ONE round of voting would be elected.

    Our current system uses the partisan primaries to winnow the number of candidates down to a more manageable number. Republicans choose their favored candidate, Dems their favorite, Greens, Libertarians, etc, each chose their favorite. The remaining candidates go on a ballot and THIS round is subject to the plurality rule: whichever candidate gets the most votes is elected president.

    An alternate system would be to have a multi-round election. All ten candidates on on the first ballot. The person with the fewest votes is eliminated and the 9 remaining candidates are on a second ballot. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, leaving 8 candidates. And so it goes. After each round, the voters get to look at the remaining candidates and vote again. After 8 rounds, only two candidates remain, the voters vote and the emerging candidate is truly the choice of the most voters.

    That is probably the fairest and most “democratic” solution to the problem of so many candidates. But it is very cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive to actually hold 9 rounds of physical, real world voting.

    Instant Run-off Voting is a close approximation of the multi-round voting scheme I have described, except the run-off rounds do not require a new ballot because the candidates are all ranked in advance by each voter. Each voter is saying, in essence, “this is my top choice, but if she is defeated, I want my vote to go to my second choice and if they are defeated, shift my vote to my third choice.

    Each voters gets the same number of votes as there are rounds. They only use fewer votes if they CHOOSE to not cast those votes.

    Dave says there is “no evidence of a serious problem that needs to be fixed,” citing the last two presidential elections(?) Not sure where Dave was during Bush v. Gore– maybe another bad cold clouding his thinking?– but it is very probable that more voters wanted Gore elected in 2000 than wanted Bush. Most people who voted for Nader had Gore as their second choice. Had IRV been in effect at that time, Gore would have won by a large enough margin that the Supreme Court would not have had a chance to impose THEIR choice upon the American people.

    I understand Dave’s desire for something to shake things up a bit and not have the same voters picking the same people over and over again. But let’s try to retain democratic forms with whatever means we approve for “fixing” the election system. Deliberately supporting an unrepresentative system like that which causes so many candidates to enter a race in the hope the field will allow their minority base to run off with the victory is a sing of desperation. And a betrayal of democracy.

    IRV actually STRENGTHENS third party, “outsider” politics. Voters can vote for their favorite candidate without having to worry that your vote will be wasted. Those who like a Nader can vote for their man and not worry their “idealistic” vote will result in their least favorite candidate winning. Tea Party activists could break from the Republican Party, running their own candidates but also casting their second vote for the “more realistic” Republican candidate.

    Neither of hte two major parties would automatically benefit from the shift to IRV. It all depends on where majority opinion actually lies. In the three way IRV race between Djou, Case and Hanabusa, I do not know who would have won. Under our current system, Djou came in first, Hanabusa second, and Case third. Under IRV, Ed would have been eliminated and his supporter’s votes would have gone to their second choice. Would more Case voters have shifted to Hanabusa or Djou?

    I dispute that Carlisle is an “outsider”in any significant way. What “independence” has he demonstrated since assuming office? The Mayoral election would have been more “democratic” if there had been a run-off, either a traditional two round vote coinciding with the primary and the general, or by using IRV.

    In the first round, Carlisle got 39% of the votes, Caldwell 34%, Panos got 19% and Rod Tam got 1%. Dave prefers we stop the voting after that first round. I think it is in the voters interest to hold a second round. Where would the Panos voters have gone, to Carlisle or to Caldwell? We can speculate, but why leave it to speculation instead of giving the voters another chance to cast their ballot? IRV allows that. Dave prefers voters NOT get that chance. He likes the randomness introduced by multi-candidate split field plurality races. It increases the odds that somebody new, “an outsider,” can win against methods more reflective of majority opinion.

    I hope you recover from your cold soon, Dave.

  20. zzzzzz Says:

    @kolea, I’ve been consistently voting Libertarian in presidential elections, and I believe my vote is wasted less that way than voting for a Democrat or Republican.

    My one vote won’t change all of our electoral vote going to the Democrat candidate, but it will help ensure the Libertarians stay on future ballots.

  21. Kolea Says:


    Libertarians, Greens and Tea Party types should like IRV as it is likely to result in substantially more votes for third (“fourth,” fifth”?) parties. The current system drives all “reasonable” electoral activity into one of the two major parties. A few strong idealists still opt for the more principled parties, but they have to swim against the tide to do so.

    Some people point to the signature requirements for a third party to get on the ballot, but in Hawaii those are extremely low and generous. The more serious obstacle is the “spoiler effect.” In a close race between two candidates of the major parties, a vote cast for a voter’s “ideal” candidate might very well result in the election of the major candidate the voter most opposes.

    In the Bush v. Gore race, the second choice for most Nader voters, by about a 2-1 margin, was Al Gore. If the “spoiler effect” were not operating, it is likely Nader would have received significantly more votes than he did. After the 2000 election fiasco, many of those who voted for Nader refused to do so the next time he ran. Partly this was because they had witnessed the “spoiler effect” in 2000 and partly this is a result of how Ralph responded to the spoiler effect, alternating between denying it existed to saying it was OK to spoil an election for a Democrat because there is no “significant difference” between the Democrats and the Republicans.

    In broad outline, most Libertarian voters seem to have the same relationship towards the Republican Party as Greens do towards the Democrats. Under IRV, the “spoiler effect” is eliminated. People are free to vote for whom they want without worrying an “idealistic” vote will be wasted, even counter-productive.

    The “Democratic party bosses” of Dave’s (fevered?) imagination do not want to encourage independent politics of the sort enabled by IRV. They prefer a two party monopoly. Heck, some of them might prefer a one-party monopoly.

    I WANT a variety of political voices to be expressed. Even to have a variety of political philosophies elected into political office. But I do not support efforts to violate basic democratic principles in order to do that, as the current simple plurality system does.

    IRV is one method for structurally nurturing independent political organization (and expression). Other solutions might include re-establishing multi-member districts like we used to have and public financing of elections and/or expanded free access to major media for candidates.

  22. zzzzzz Says:

    Another way to nurture more independent political organization (and expression) would be non-partisan elections at the state level.

  23. Kolea Says:


    I disagree that would be an improvement. Look at the non-partisan county councils and tell me they inspire you.

    The things people dislike about political parties are inherent in democratic political self-organization. People band together with friends, neighbors and associates to express their opinions and organize to advance their interests, their social visions. The choose from among their members those willing to run for elective office. Loyalties are forged, compromises are made and political parties are born.

    This happens in virtually every democracy (or semi-democracy).

    Dreaming about a non-partisan political system leads you into unrealistic expectations of human behavior. And not because non-partisanship is some sort of higher form of consciousness than people are capable of sustaining. But because non-partisanship is a denial of politics.

    Eliminating parties is a way to DE-MOBILIZE political expression. Politicians will still have alliances and networks of backers. They will just be less transparent and even less accountable to membership organizations than they are now.

    IRV would remove the spoiler effect which is perhaps the major impediment to people voting for third parties and encouraging their growth. I would welcome a more varied “marketplace of ideas” than the officially approved, narrow Democratic vs. Republican parameters of debate. The rise of viable, even if “minor,” political parties should help expand the choices for voters.

  24. shaftalley Says:

    belt-way libertarian.

  25. shaftalley Says:

    when i wrote “belt-way libertarian”,i meant that for ex-congressman bob barr who ran for president as a libertarian,with the full support of the national libertarian party.i thought he was a poor choice.

  26. zzzzzz Says:

    @shaftalley, I agree– Bob Barr (whose name makes me think of an elephant named Celeste) has too many ties to the Republican party to be, IMO, a good standard bearer for the Libs.

    I wish Paul Tsongas or Jesse Ventura had run as a Lib.

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