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Honolulu Advertiser

Election Day options studied
August 12, 2002
By Jan Ten Bruggencate

Hawaiíi's winner-take-all elections may be one reason for low voter turnout, and radically new ways of setting up elections could re-energize voter turnout, some political theorists suggest.

On the other hand, radically different kinds of elections could erode public trust in the voting process, and actually reduce participation, others say.

Small groups of political scientists are studying examples of such techniques as cumulative voting, proportional voting and instant runoffs.

Such alternative systems are viewed in some circles as ways to give voters more control over the results of an election - and herefore a way to interest more voters into showing up at the polling places.

"Almost any other system is an improvement over our winner-take-all system," said Steven Hill, western regional director for the Center for Voting and Democracy.

But all of those systems require new, more complex counting mechanisms and could be counterproductive because they can be difficult to understand, said University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu history professor Dan Boylan.

"I think that you must have the confidence of the people in the voting system," he said.

Boylan said he would support an instant runoff, which would not allow a candidate to be elected without a majority of votes.

In a race for one seat with more than two candidates, a voter would rank his candidates. If his favorite candidate is the last-place candidate in first-choice voting, his second choice is applied.

In examples used by those proposing the system, an instant runoff might have changed the outcomes of the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won with less than a majority over George Bush Sr. and Ross Perot. But if third-place Perot's voters had overwhelmingly selected Bush as their second choice, he could have ended up with a majority of the votes in an instant runoff.

Similarly, in 2000, if most of third-place Ralph Nader's voters had selected Al Gore as their second choice, he could have won the election without the unpleasantness of Florida's recounts.

As it ended up, the instant runoff folks say, in both 1992 and 2000, the people got the candidate who got the most electoral votes, but who was voted against by a substantial majority of American voters.

Another benefit of the instant runoff system is that people would not feel a vote for their favorite candidate would be wasted, said University of Hawai'i political science professor Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller.

"It would have increased the Nader vote. There still would have been another chance. It gives people a chance to vote their conscience and then to back themselves up," he said.

State elections administrator Dwayne Yoshina said he likes the idea, but lacks the power to implement it. That would take either action by the state Legislature or a constitutional convention, he said.

"The law says the person with the largest number of votes will prevail," Yoshina said.

Other alternative systems include:

Choice voting . This system can be used in multiseat elections. Here is one way it can work:

If there are five candidates for two seats, and no one gets enough first-place votes to win outright on the first round, then the fifth-place candidate is eliminated and on ballots listing him or her first, the second-choice candidate votes are added to the remaining candidates. At this point, if no candidate has enough votes, then the fourth-place candidate is eliminated and his or her second-place votes are applied to the top three. It doesn't matter how many candidates or seats there are. The process continues until successful candidates are selected.

Cumulative voting . This system, which would work in multiseat districts, allows the voter to cast as many votes as there are seats open in a race, and to vote them all for one candidate, or spread around a few favored candidates.

For instance, this year there are 29 candidates for the Kaua'i County Council's seven seats, all running at large. As it stands now, Kaua'i voters can vote for seven or fewer candidates, each time only once. Under a cumulative voting system, Kaua'i voters would have seven votes to use as they see fit, even if one or two candidates get all the votes.

This system gives minority candidates a better chance of being elected, supporters argue. Minority groups can concentrate their voting strength on a few candidates, and ensure they will have a voice in the body. Cumulative voting is commonly used in shareholder voting for members of boards of directors, to ensure that minority shareholders can have a voice on the board.

Hill uses the example of Amarillo, Texas, where 60 percent of the population is white, and neither blacks nor Hispanics had ever been represented on the local school board until cumulative voting was established.

In the first election after cumulative voting, one African-American and one Latino were elected, Hill said.

Related voting systems are in place in other communities in Texas, Alabama, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Instead of candidates focusing their attention only on a small group of centrist undecided voters, these voting systems require them to talk to all the voters, and "voters can feel more connection to the candidates," Hill said.

Boylan has other suggestions, such as allowing someone who shows up to the polls to vote without registering beforehand. He believes people should receive a tax credit for voting and a tax penalty for not voting. He also suggested that voting be made mandatory and those who don't vote would face a fine.

But Boylan said he despairs of some of these changes getting through the Legislature, because they can threaten legislators who benefit from limiting electors to those who put them in office.

"You'll never get significant capital spending reform or significant changes in election policies in an elected legislature. They won't do it. It threatens their jobs," he said.

A constitutional convention might be able to make the changes, he said. And if it did, and there were increases in voting by the young, poor and undereducated - people who rarely vote now - things would change, he said.

How to register to vote:

To register to vote, you need to fill out and send in a voter registration affidavit.

You will find one in any Verizon phone book, and on O'ahu in the 2002 Paradise Pages. Just tear it out or make a copy.

Forms are kept at all City or County Clerk's offices, U.S. Post Offices, public libraries and many state offices. There's a copy in the State of Hawai'i tax booklet. You also can register when you apply for or renew your driver's license. The form can be downloaded from the State Office of Elections Web page.

Deadlines for registering to vote in the 2002 elections are Aug. 22 for the primary election and Oct. 7 for the general election.

Important dates

Aug. 22: Last day to register to vote for the Primary Election

Sept. 9: Walk-in absentee polling places open for Primary Election. They close Sept. 19.

Sept. 13: Last day to request absentee mail-in ballots for Primary Election

Sept. 21: Primary Election

Oct. 7: Last day to register to vote for General Election

Oct. 22: Walk-in absentee polling places open for General Election. They close Nov. 2.

Oct. 29: Last day to request absentee mail-in ballots for General Election

Nov. 5: General Election

For special assistance or more information call the state Office of Elections at (808) 453-VOTE (8683).

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Copyright © 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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