To be a candidate for the Kaua‘i County Council you must be a resident and a “qualified voter” for two years preceding the election.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable requirement. However, it’s the most-restrictive in the state, and disenfranchises over 30% of Kaua‘i residents.
You could have been born and raised on Kaua‘i, perhaps a recent graduate or a veteran returning home, who has not yet registered to vote, and you would be declared ineligible.
However, you could move to Honolulu and run for election to the council there tomorrow. You could also possibly run for election to be a state senator or representative, or even a member of the U.S. Congress, none of which have a minimum residency requirement.
But unless you’ve been registered to vote on Kaua‘i for two years prior to being elected, you cannot run to become a member of the council. At least that’s what it looks like at first glance. Upon a second and third glance, the aforementioned conclusion becomes a bit muddy.
According to the state Office of Elections, the qualifications needed are as follows:
• Kaua‘i County Council: Qualified voter of Kaua‘i County at least two years prior to election;
• City and County of Honolulu: Resident and registered voter of the appropriate council district;
• Hawai‘i County Council: Resident and registered voter of the council district at least 90 days prior to primary election, qualified voter of Hawai‘i County for a least one year prior to election;
• Maui County Council: Resident in the area of the county from which the person seeks to be elected for a period of one year before filing, qualified voter of Maui County.
It’s my understanding that the Office of Elections, for purposes of evaluating the qualification of new candidates for the Kaua‘i County Council, interprets the words “qualified” and “registered” as essentially synonyms. I’m not aware if this has ever been challenged in court.
Notice if you will that “qualified voter” is used in relation to Kaua‘i’s requirement. For Honolulu it’s “resident and registered voter” and for Maui it’s “resident and qualified voter.”
Hawai‘i County uses both “registered voter” and “qualified voter,” implying that they have different meanings.
So, is there a difference between a qualified voter and a registered voter?
Yes, we are digging down into the weeds, but in policymaking the weeds are important, and often where the rubber meets the road.
Being “registered to vote” seems pretty clear. You have filled out a form and have the paper to prove it. Being “qualified to vote,” however, could be interpreted as being of age and being a resident, thus qualified to be a voter but not having yet registered.
To further confuse things, the actual Kaua‘i County Charter Section 3.04. does not use the words “registered voter” or “qualified voter,” but rather says, “To be eligible for the council, a person must be a citizen of the United States and must have been a duly qualified elector of the county for at least two years immediately preceding his election or appointment.”
Why the Office of Elections chooses to use language different from that contained within the charter I do not know.
Oxford defines the word “elector” as “a person who has the right to vote in an election.”
It would seem that all adult residents of Kaua‘i have the right to vote in our elections.
Yes, words matter. In this case, the prevailing interpretation of the words would appear to prevent otherwise-qualified residents from running and serving on the Kaua‘i County Council.
Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years 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 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.