Republican candidate Charles Djou won the HI-01 special election with 39.5% of the vote because two Democrats, Colleen Hanabusa with 30.8% and Ed Case with 27.6%, split the Democratic vote almost down the middle. This is a great example of how the design of our election laws can greatly affect our government; a poorly-designed electoral system like Hawaii’s can result in winners that don’t best represent the will of the electorate. Using almost any other election system other than Hawaii’s, Djou would likely have lost. There is something very wrong with a democracy when political party A gets 58% of the vote, the political party B gets only 40% of the vote, yet political party B is the winner.
If Hawaii had allowed for a traditional primary for special elections or even a nominating caucus system it is highly unlikely Djou would have won against a single Democrat. The whole point of primaries is to allow parties to put forward only one candidate so as to prevent exactly this kind of vote splitting. Voting splitting is a huge problem when you have a single member district with a plurality winner – a system referred to as “first past the post.”
If they had used instant runoff voting Colleen Hanabusa would likely have been the second choice of most of Case’s voters and as a result, would have won. If Hawaii had a top two runoff election when no candidate got 50% of the vote, like they do in the state of Georgia, Hanabusa would probably have defeated Djou in that following head to head matchup. If as a country we had multi-member Congressional districts with proportional representation 60% of the seats would have gone to Democrats and only 40% to Republicans.
This Hawaii special election offers a perfect example of how important effective election law is to a truly representative government. Observers should be spurred to deeper thought and action about improving our election laws. At the very least it should encourage Hawaii to replace its incredibly stupid no-primary “first past the post” system for special elections with something better.