Three's Not A Crowd (w/IRV)

Could the Aloha State’s newest member of Congress be elected with as little as one-third of the vote?

Last week, Congressmember Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) announced he was resigning his seat in order to run for Hawai’i Governor — setting off seismic waves from Honolulu to Washington DC.

Because the state must now hold a special election to fill Abercrombie’s 1st Congressional District seat. The price tag:  a cool $2 million — money the state’s elections department doesn’t have (it’s running a $12,000 deficit).

This special election has thrown everyone a curveball.  For starters, no one knows when it will be held.  Normally, a special election would be called for a date 70 days after a seat becomes vacant.

But because the state’s Office of Elections can’t ante up the $2 million, this “special” election may have to wait until the next regular election: the September 18, 2010 (!!) primary.   Surely state leaders can figure out a quicker way to elect a new Congressmember:  representation delayed is representation denied.

Adding to the intrigue, the GOP has a shot at picking up a seat in Congresss.  In this winner-takes-all contest, all candidates face off in a single round of voting.  Whoever finishes first wins the special election, regardless of whether (s)he receives 25 percent or 51 percent.

Who will win this election?  The tea leaves offer few clues.  While it has voted Democratic in Presidential elections, Hawai’i has elected a Republican Governor in both 2002 and 2006.

On the one hand, the Democratic vote could split in the GOP’s favor.  Two Democrats (State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former Congressmember Ed Case) have thrown their hats in the ring, while state Republicans have united behind Honolulu Councilmember Charles Djou.

On the other hand, the election could cut in the Dems’ favor.  Namely, the “Blue Dog” Democrat Case could split the Republican and independent vote — opening the door for his Democratic rival (Hanabusa) to win.

No matter which candidate you’re rooting for, it’s troubling that as many as two-thirds of Hawaiians will not vote for the eventual winner.  Indeed, in this three-person race, someone could win with only one-third of the vote — far from a clear mandate to govern.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to elect a majority (50 percent plus 1) winner in one election.  It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which AAA-Fund strongly supports.  With IRV, you rank your first three choices (1-2-3), and the rankings are then used to determine the majority winner.

A growing number of locales are turning to IRV, which is used widely across the country and around the world.  In recent years, Oakland, San Francisco, Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Santa Fe have all adopted IRV, and the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach are seriously considering it.  What’s more, IRV is currently used in Ireland, London, Australia, and New Zealand.

In 2006, the League of Women Voters of Hawai’i testified in favor of IRV for special elections.  Indeed, IRV has already attracted broad, bipartisan support in both Hawai’i and the mainland:  Barack Obama, John McCain, Howard Dean, John Anderson, Sen. Les Ihara Jr., Sen. Fred Hemmings, Alaska Republican Party, California Democratic Party, California Controller John Chiang, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, former Sen. David Durenberger (R-MN), California League of Women Voters, California Common Cause, FairVote, Asian American Action Fund, and many others.

Nearly a year ago, State Senators Ihara and Hemmings introduced a bipartisan bill to adopt IRV for special and one-round elections (i.e., all elections without a primary).  Their bill (SB 670) is now pending before the Hawai’i Senate’s Judiciary & Government Operations Committee.

It’s not too late for Hawai’i to honor the will of the majority.  It’s not too late to ensure that Hawai’i’s newest Congressmember has a true mandate to govern.

Three’s a perfectly acceptable “crowd” of candidates — with IRV. It’s high time for Hawai’i to adopt Instant Runoff Voting for special elections.

— Gautam Dutta

Note: The AAA-Fund welcomes a diversity of views and voices. In that spirit, the views expressed in this article are the author's own. Unless an article states that it was written by the AAA-Fund or its Board of Directors, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the AAA-Fund.


  1. gautam says:

    Hawaii’s fiscal problems caught the NY Times’ attention:


    Hawaii now has the shortest school year in the nation after the state and the teachers’ union agreed to shutter schools for 17 days a year, leaving 171,000 students without class on most Fridays. Negotiations to reopen them collapsed last week.

    Food establishments often go uninspected, a fact highlighted by an Internet video showing rats roaming freely across produce in a Honolulu Chinatown market. The state has just nine health inspectors on Oahu to handle nearly 6,000 markets and restaurants.

    The State Elections Office said it might not be able to afford a pending special election, which could leave half of the state’s population without a voice in the House of Representatives until September.

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