Abercrombie touts political diversity

In a speech to O‘ahu Democrats over the weekend, Gov. Neil Abercrombie raised the intriguing possibility of supporting a return to multimember legislative districts.

Hawai‘i had many multimember House and Senate districts until 1982, when a Republican reapportionment lawsuit forced a change to all single-member districts.

It was one of the biggest bonehead moves in local political history, as multimember districts with as many as four seats made it much easier for minority party candidates to get elected.

Before the change, Republicans had influential caucuses in both houses, often with enough numerical strength to force votes, pull bills to the floor and be a factor in Democratic organizational disputes.

Since 1982, Republican numbers in the Legislature have been so small as to render them insignificant; currently, they hold only eight of 51 House seats and one of 25 Senate seats.

But multimember districts don’t help only Republicans. They also bring fresh blood into the Democratic caucus by encouraging young activists, ethnic minorities and those who can’t raise big campaign funds. Abercrombie and former Gov. Ben Cayetano both benefited from running in multimember districts early in their careers.

“I doubt seriously I would have been elected in 1974 in the old 19th Representative District where more than 60 percent of the voters were AJAs and I was the only non-AJA running in the Democratic primary,” Cayetano said in his autobiography, “Ben.”

“Fortunately the 19th was a two-member district and the voters had choices. … Single-mrmber districts give well-financed incumbents a tremendous advantage over newcomers.”

Abercrombie said Saturday, “You can say, ‘Yes, there may be a big dog in this district here, but this little puppy wants to have a shot. And can you give me a chance?’ ”

We could use some more political diversity around here, and kudos to Abercrombie for bringing it up.

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8 Comments on “Abercrombie touts political diversity”

  1. hugh clark Says:

    Excellent recall. Chart and compare voter participation before ending multiple member districts and now. Too many voters believe they have no stake in outcome.

    Same thing happened on Big Island when Republicans inspired single-member districts and voter turnout plummeted. So has performance of egomaniacal council members whose endless infighting is disturbing.

  2. Kolea Says:

    Another Shapiro column where I can agree with everything Dave has written. Multi-Member Districts (MMDs) are a method of encouraging political diversity and the election of “fresh blood” to office WITHOUT violating basic democratic principles. Other methods might include public financing of elections along the lines of the “Voter Owned Hawaii” system being tested on the Big Island, and Instant Run-Off Voting.

    Non-democratic methods for helping newcomers include the current one round, simple plurality voting used in special elections which can result in the election of a candidate with the support of a small minority in the district, as demonstrated when Tom Berg won the Council seat with only 18% of the vote. Another anti-democratic proposal which pops up now and then, is term limits, which “solve the problem” of entrenched incumbency by forbidding voters from re-electing an office-holder, even if they want to vote for them.

    One caveat, however. The only reasonable objection I have encountered to MMDs is the argument that the district must inevitably grow in size. If we keep the overall number of legislators constant, a 3 member House district would be three times the size of a current district. Meaning a candidate would have to contact 3 times as many voters during a campaign, whether through door-to-door canvassing, mailings or, dare I say it, television ads. Campaign costs would rise accordingly. The current “formula” for running a House campaign is for the candidate to walk the district 3 times. That approach works well for newcomer challengers as a low cost method for getting their face out there and impressing the residents with their ideas and personal charm.

    Should the cost of campaigning rise threefold, MMDs might have the unintended consequence of reducing the chances for a newcomer to win office, unless they are well-funded, independently wealthy or have access to a pre-existing large membership organization: a union, church, political party, etc.

    If the Voter Owned Hawaii public financing law survives court challenge, it would be good to expand it to cover more elections, particularly if we want to reap the benefits of MMDs, while mitigating the downside. If Hawaii campaigns become flooded with even more corporate money in the wake of the Citizens United court ruling, MMDs may end up providing a means for Big Money challengers to gain office instead of the independents we are hoping would emerge.

    So let’s anticipate foreseeable “unintended consequences” and construct the law to avoid the downside.

  3. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    Smaller districts make it cheaper for newcomers to run for office, but multi-member districts are very large and would require a lot more money The current costs to run in an urban or suburban district is about $50,000 – in a rural area that could bump up to as much as $75,000.

    NOTE: My SigOth has been the treasurer fo five different legislative races over the past ten years plus I am a relatively minor Democratic Party official and have been involved with at least ten campaigns at all three levels of government since the mid-1990s.

    Furthermore, there is no requirement barring all office-holders from a given multi-member district from living on the same street or even the same community.

    In looking at the members of the current legislature, I see a great diversity whether by age or ethnicity or education. Although we could use some more women – 9 out of 25 in the Senate and 17 out of 51 in the House – that’s up to potential candidates and their ability to raise campaign funds.

    Of the 76 members in the Legislature, I have worked with – and frequently against – with 75 of them over the past twenty years. There’s only one individual whom I carefully avoid and he’s been in office for a kazillion years both at the county and state levels.

    I would guestimate that well over 125 individuals have held office during that time. Will try to confirm that the next time I am at the Capitol by examining historical legislative records.

  4. Richard Gozinya Says:

    If we get more legislators, maybe we can reduce the pay per person. After all,with more people there’s less work for each one,right?

    I kid. I kid.

    I’m all for the return of multi-member districts for a simple reason: it holds the chanceto reverse voter apathy and man oh man that’s critical going forward. Way too many guys figgah the whole political schtick is scammed and the fat cats have rigged the game. So they don’t vote. We see it time and again. MMDs let the little man (or woman)get a shot at participation, at shaking things up, at being the person who represents the not fat cat,uh,the thin cat.

    Anyway,you get my point.

  5. Michael Says:

    It still involves two parties. With a pending third. More heads that will bang against each other.
    Too many “Chiefs” and not enough “Indians” You have the legislature planning but, Who will be doing the actual job? No money to pay for the cost of the job.
    Not hiring.

    Our Government should be run by who is best qualified. I couldn’t careless about which Party wins. Confusion added to an already confusing Legislature.

    If they want a multimember legislative districts, they must set the boundaries first. Not have one candidate run for office but live in another district, like hannabusa. What has happened many years ago will only add water or mud to quicksand.
    There is no miracle solution. No “Messiah” as said when President Obama was elected.

    I would vote for Ben if he ran for Senate against lingle. Just my opinion.

  6. Cute Lunatic Says:

    Let’s do it! We can get a better balance of parties, more voter turnout, etc. etc. Looks like a win-win to me.

  7. cloudia Says:

    you ALWAYS illuminate!

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral




  8. charles Says:

    I wonder where the Republican Party would be on a return to multi-member districts.

    Here’s my take: I would think that in urban Honolulu, it makes perfect sense to have multi-member districts. After all, what is the difference between Manoa and Makiki or Kalihi and Chinatown?

    But on the neighbor islands, it’s a different kettle of fish. If there were multi-member districts, say, on Kauai, it would mean that all three reps would run island-wide. That might be a big stretch in representation.

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