Chad Blair: There’s A High Bar For Legislative Candidates Without A – Honolulu Civil Beat

Posted: July 21, 2020 at 1:06 pm

Paul Shiraishi, a first-time candidate for office in Hawaii, is doing many of the important things needed to attract votes.

Hes got a great campaign website, for one, with the donate button featured on every page.

There are also great photos including Shiraishi in aloha wear with a kukui nut necklace, surfing, in his Marine uniform and with his grandmother.

He makes clear that he is offering a new, independent voice in the race to represent the state Senates 10th District (Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, St. Louis Heights, Moiliili, Ala Wai).

Shiraishis biography is compelling, too: five years on active duty with the Marines, most of it in the Asia-Pacific region. Although born on Hawaiis ninth island i.e., Las Vegas he stresses local roots that extend three generations.

He studied economics and political science at UH Manoa, interned at the Hawaii State Judiciary and volunteered with Honolulu Habitat for Humanity.

At age 29 and ambitious, Paul Shiraishi would seem to have a good bet in getting elected to the Hawaii Legislature.

Theres just one very big catch: Shiraishi is running as a nonpartisan candidate in a mostly partisan field, for a legislative body that is heavily dominated by one political party.

According to election results going back decades, a nonpartisan candidate has yet to be elected to the Legislature. It is likely due in no small part to a state law that requires nonpartisan candidates to garner a precise number of votes in the primary election in order to advance to the general. (More on that in a minute.)

Shiraishi knows the odds and is not deterred.

If somebody doesnt necessarily agree with the Democratic Party, or maybe just wants to present competition to one-party dominance, they have nowhere to go, he said. They either pledge loyalty to Trump as a Republican, or they run as an independent. That is the only relative option.

Its not too hard to qualify for Hawaiis legislative primary ballot: A candidate must be a state resident for at least three years prior to election, submit a petition with 15 valid signatures from registered voters in the district, fill out nomination papers and a financial disclosure and fork over $250.

But, while Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian and other qualified independent party candidates have a good shot at advancing to the general election they merely have to win their race, and many partisan primary contests are uncontested or heavily favor incumbents nonpartisan candidates have one of two pathways, both largely beyond their control.

The first is to earn at least 10% of all the votes cast for the office in that particular primary. The second is to earn a vote equal to or greater than the lowest vote received by the partisan candidate who was nominated.

Heres how the State Elections Office explains it:

But is it a fair and reasonable formula? No, says one elections expert.

Its just dumb, says Richard Winger, editor of San Francisco-based Ballot Access News. I wish the Hawaii Legislature would get rid of it. There is no other state like it in the country for independent candidates, unless you include California and Washington, where the top two finishers advance.

Winger, whose expertise is recommended by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, said the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that states cannot go above 5% as a vote requirement for moving on from the primary to the general election.

Only Georgia and Illinois use the 5% figure, and Winger said legal challenges will likely lead to throwing out the requirement. (Alabama uses 3%.)

Hawaiis 10% law was challenged in 1988 by Ted Erum, a Kauai resident. But he lost.

He should have won, said Winger.

Minor parties such as Green and Libertarians have had greater success in challenging and changing election laws because they have members. But nonpartisan candidates are invariably solo operators, so its hard to lobby for their behalf, said Winger.

Still, nearly every state legislator in the country is either a Democrat or a Republican, with minor party and independents making with the exception of states like Vermont and Alaska few inroads.

And here at home Greens and Libertarians have yet to send one of their own to the Hawaii Legislature.

The primary vote hurdle likely scares off candidates running as an NP.

Of the 29 candidates running for 13 state Senate seats this year, only two are nonpartisan. Of the 131 candidates running for 51 state House seats, only three are nonpartisan.

Heres another hurdle: Even though Hawaii voters are not required to register their party affiliation with the state, primary voters can only pick the ballot of one party in the primary. Its called an open primary, in that voters may choose which partys ballot to vote, as the NCSL puts it.

This permits a voter to cast a vote across party lines for the primary election, says the NCSL. Critics argue that the open primary dilutes the parties ability to nominate. Supporters say this system gives voters maximal flexibility allowing them to cross party lines and maintains their privacy.

Sen. Les Ihara says he welcomes electoral competition.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

But here is whats undemocratic to me: In the general election this year voters could, if they so choose, vote for a Republican for the U.S. House, a Democrat for the state Senate and a Green or Libertarian or Aloha Aina party candidate for the state House. But in the primary they can only pull one partys ballot or the nonpartisan ballot.

The trend line may be moving away from party politics. While Congress, governor and lieutenant governor remain partisan races in Hawaii, all county offices are nonpartisan.

Sen. Les Ihara, 69, who has served in the Legislature since 1987 first in the House and since 1995 in the Senate says he welcomes Shiraishi to the District 10 race. Same goes for his Democratic primary opponents Vicki Higgins and Jesus Arriola.

My policy is to always have competition because you have to give voters a choice, said Ihara. I trust the voters will vote on who they think is best.

Thus far, in Iharas case it has always been him and the races have not been very close. He won the 2016 primary and general each with 70% of the vote.

Because about 8,000 people voted in the 2016 primary, Shiraishi figures he needs to get between 800 and 900 votes on Aug. 8 in order to go on to Nov. 3.

I hope Paul makes it past this years primary election, or else there is only the Democratic winners name on the general ballot, said Ihara. If its me, it might be my first ever unopposed general election.

And that may be the biggest reason Shiraishi is running, besides wanting to serve: to offer choice.

Win or lose, I really feel it should be easier to run as a nonpartisan and qualify for the general, especially given the state of politics in 2020, said Shiraishi, who said his politics lean conservative but he broke with the GOP over Trump. There is a frustration about divisive party politics with the president obviously but also with Democrats.

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Chad Blair: There's A High Bar For Legislative Candidates Without A - Honolulu Civil Beat

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