The historic decision last month by voters in Alaska to send Mary Peltola to the US Congress has lessons for Hawaii.
The Democrat, a former state lawmaker from the 49th state, defeated two Republicans in a special election to fill the term of the late Congressman Don Young. One of the GOP candidates was Sarah Palin, the former governor and mayor of Alaska as well as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.
It was held in a process known as ranked choice voting which allows voters to rank – first, second, third and so on – the candidates in a race. The first round of counting will determine whether a candidate has obtained 50% of the votes plus one more vote, which allows him to win the competition outright. If this does not happen, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.
“If you voted for this candidate, your vote goes to your next choice and you always have a say in who wins,” explains a helpful FAQ on the Alaska Division of Elections website. “If your first choice candidate has not been eliminated, your vote remains with him. The votes are counted again. This continues to happen in rounds until there are only two candidates left and whoever has the most votes wins.
I bring this up because Hawaii is set to install ranked ballots starting in January under a law signed into law by Governor David Ige this summer. This is an important step forward in the possibility of leveling the playing field and choosing consensus candidates in a state dominated by one political party.
Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, and the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs championed Senate Bill 2162, which was crafted by the senses. Karl Rhoads, Gil Keith-Agaran and Chris Lee.
But the RCV in Hawaii will only apply to special elections for federal office and for vacant county council seats, which doesn’t happen that often. I hope the 50th state looks north to expand the RCV to include more races.
Through an approved ballot initiative in 2020, Alaska is now the first state to use RCV for all state and federal races – President, Congress, Governor and Lieutenant Governor, and State House and Senate.
“We are the first and only jurisdiction to do this,” says Tiffany Montemayor, public relations manager for the Alaska Division of Elections.
It will include a rematch in November for a full two-year term between Peltola, Palin and Nick Begich III, the lowest voter in the August 16 special election.
Preferential Vote, Alaska Style
Peltola’s election made national headlines because it not only featured the embarrassing loss of Palin, but also represented a Democratic revival in the tightly divided United States House.
She is also the first Democrat elected to the House from Alaska since 1970, and the first Alaskan-born, Alaska-native in Congress. Peltola is Yup’ik and grew up on the Kuskokwim River.
Unsurprisingly, Peltola has publicly said she thinks RCV is working just fine while Palin – whose campaign was shocked by the loss and described RCV as confusing – is demanding that Begich, a Republican, drop the general. He says he won’t and calls Palin a “chump,” arguing that RCV shows voters soured on him.
Meanwhile, fact checkers rejected an argument by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, who claimed that “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and running out of ballots — which disenfranchises voters — a Democrat ‘won.'”
It is true that Palin in the first round received 30.9% of the vote against 27.8% for Begich and 39.7% for Peltola. But enough Begich voters made Peltola and not Palin — one of the most polarizing politicians in recent memory — their second choice on the ballot. In the final count, published on August 31, it was 51.5% for Peltola against 48.5% for Palin.
RCV supporters say what it really reveals is that most Alaskan voters found the system easy to learn. Another takeaway is that Republicans need to nominate more moderate or mainstream candidates who can draw broader support across the state.
Hawaiian politics could benefit
The Hawaii State Office of Elections would be well advised to explain how the RCV will work. A good place to start is to follow what the Alaska Division of Elections has released.
It’s simple to follow and includes very helpful illustrations of what an RCV ballot looks like, a brief instructional video, translations into Spanish and seven native languages, and a list of tips and “mistakes to avoid.” “.
Here’s another lesson from Alaska to Hawaii, this one to the candidates themselves as well as their backers: be nice.
While Peltola was a model of decorum, Alaska Public Media reported, “As the election approached, Palin and Begich traded sharp comments in an attempt to sway Republican voters to their side. Observers say it may have been counterproductive, with Palin’s comments alienating the Begich supporters she needed to win.
I hope Hawaii lawmakers will seriously consider expanding RCV here. The enabling legislation explains that it “has been used effectively in the United States and around the world”, including Alaska, Maine, New York, Australia, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Ireland North and Scotland.
The bill also points out that Hawaii’s voting systems include optical scanners that “can process ranked voting with little or no difficulty.”
Think about how these recent elections in Hawaii – some special, most not, all important – might have turned out differently had the RCV been instituted:
- In a 2002 special election to fill the remainder of the term of the late U.S. Representative Patsy Mink, fellow Democrat Ed Case won with a plurality of votes cast in a contest that featured Mink’s widower John, the Republican John Carroll and Whitney Anderson, and more than a dozen other candidates.
- In early 2003, Case again prevailed in the special election for another two-year term, again defeating Anderson and Carroll, Democrats Matt Matsunaga and Colleen Hanabusa, Republicans Barbara Marumoto and Bob McDermott, and Frank Fasi, who ran as a Republican. More than 30 other people were also on the ballot, some posing as Greens, Libertarians, others third parties or as non-partisan.
- In the 2006 Democratic primary, Mazie Hirono narrowly edged out Hanabusa for the 2nd congressional district race which also included Matsunaga, Clayton Hee, Gary Hooser, Brian Schatz, Ron Menor, Nestor Garcia and two others.
- In a special election in 2010 to fill the remainder of former U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie’s term, Republican Charles Djou defeated Hanabusa, Case and 11 others with a plurality of votes.
- In the 2014 Democratic primary, Mark Takai defeated Donna Mercado Kim, Stanley Chang, Ikaika Anderson, Will Espero and Joey Manahan by a plurality of votes cast.
- In that same primary, Schatz narrowly edged out Hanabusa in the Senate primary which also included a third Democrat.
- In the 2018 Democratic primary, Ed Case beat Kim, Doug Chin, Kaniela Ing, Beth Fukumoto and Ernie Martin with a plurality.
- In the 2022 Democratic primary, Sylvia Luke won over Ikaika Anderson, Keith Amemiya and Sherry Menor-McNamara, still with a plurality.
I am not judging here whether the top contenders won or lost these races. But even someone with a casual knowledge of Hawaiian politics might recognize many of the names listed above and the diversity of their views.
Had RCV been in play — had voters been given the opportunity to rank their favorite candidates — it’s likely that at least some of these elections might have turned out differently, along with the history and direction of modern Hawaii.