After watching the recent online council forum, it is clear that electing Kaua‘i councilmembers by district is a change that is long overdue.
While there were over a dozen good souls at this forum seeking to demonstrate their worthiness to voters, in the present “at-large” system there is simply no way to choose or compare one against the other. There is no direct debate of ideas or solutions, but rather just a seemingly endless parade of generalities without rebuttal.
The present, “at-large” system does not allow voters to truly choose who will represent them and the issues most important to them and their districts. Voters in individual districts deserve to be able to call upon the person specifically elected to represent the needs of that district. Yes, the councilmember elected from a certain district must also represent the whole of the county, but the current system doesn’t ensure each district has an equal voice.
The system now in place is also not fair to candidates, especially new candidates. Incumbents already have a huge advantage, and for new candidates who have to build county-wide name recognition, the cost and effort is extraordinarily high. Candidates who have fresh ideas and bold proposals are stifled in the beauty-pageant-style forums that review over 20 candidates at a time, giving each one to three minutes to present complex answers to complex issues.
There are never just two people on stage, an incumbent and a challenger, discussing competing ideas and solutions. Voters never get to see any meaningful direct comparison of the candidates. And new candidates are never given a public opportunity to challenge incumbents one-on-one.
In addition, because of the widespread practice of “plunking,” or utilizing only one or two of the “up to seven votes” each voter is allowed, the system is skewed and does not provide each candidate an equal or fair opportunity to be elected.
A quick lesson on the principle of “plunking:” Imagine for a moment that you are a candidate for the Kaua‘i County Council. Now imagine your mother and father in the voting booth. They each, of course, cast their first vote for you, and then they cast their remaining six votes for other candidates. Imagine seeing the results come in and realizing you lost by a single vote and the other six candidates mom and dad voted for won.
Your parents’ votes for the other six candidates were the votes that beat you. If good ole mom and dad would have only voted for you and no one else, you would have won. This is why akamai candidates educate their families and close friends on how “plunking” works. If a candidate has 50 people “plunk” only for them, that is taking away 50 votes from six other candidates, giving the favored “plunked” candidate a 50-vote advantage.
Kauai is the only county that does not have some form of district voting, and it’s time, I believe, to put the question once again on the ballot for voters to decide. There are different models and ways to enact “districting,” and it’s possible to incorporate elements and benefits of both the existing “at-large” system and a conventional “districting” system.
Putting a “multimember, three-district” option on the ballot would be a good step in the right direction. Utilizing the three existing state House districts and electing councilmembers from within those districts would avoid the expense and complexity of “redrawing district lines,” and provide residents within those districts the benefit on being represented by councilmembers who actually experience and understand the issues associated with that district.
While a multimember, three-district system will not eliminate all of the challenges involved with a strictly “at-large” system, it will in fact greatly improve upon the status quo, and in fact allow residents the opportunity to vote for and be represented by someone who actually lives in their neighborhood.
The Kaua‘i County Council will be discussing this issue at their meeting today — agenda item COW2020-04. Readers, residents and voters are encouraged to offer testimony via firstname.lastname@example.org and/or share thoughts when feasible with all seven councilmember’s at email@example.com.
Please, take the time and engage this issue with your Kaua‘i County Council. They have the power to place this question on the ballot for voters to decide. That is all that is being asked of them. They do not have to endorse or even support the idea. The only ask is that they give individual voters the courtesy to decide for themselves whether they would like to change the system or not.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.