The death of one of Hawaii’s congressmen has led to an unusual ballot and voter confusion in urban Honolulu.
The rare double election means residents in the 1st Congressional District are selecting someone to fill the late U.S. Rep. Mark Takai’s seat for the two-month unfinished term and someone to represent the district for the next two years.
Takai died in office last July.
The situation could lead to two different people winning the same House seat on election night, to serve the two different terms.
Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa is one of the candidates. The Democrat is hoping to return to her old seat in Congress, which she gave up to run for Senate two years ago.
WHAT’S UNUSUAL ABOUT THIS ELECTION?
Voters in the 1st Congressional District are being asked to vote twice — on the same ballot — for candidates running for the same seat.
Hanabusa, who previously held the congressional seat, won the Democratic primary and is expected to cruise to victory for the two-year term that begins in January.
But voters also have to decide who will finish the remaining two months of Takai’s term, which begins immediately after Election Day, in a special election. And some don’t understand they have to vote twice on the same ballot.
“Lots of voter confusion,” Republican candidate Shirlene Ostrov said.
ARE THE SAME PEOPLE RUNNING IN BOTH THE GENERAL ELECTION AND THE SPECIAL ELECTION?
Not entirely. In the general election for the two-year term, there are four candidates who survived the primary election, and all four — Hanabusa, Ostrov, and the other two — are running in both races.
But in the special election, there are a total of 10 candidates — including four additional Democrats.
ARE VOTERS CONFUSED?
Al Coleman, a 57-year-old IT professional who lives in Waikiki, said he voted for Ostrov. But after leaving the early voting location on Oct. 31, Coleman said he only voted for Ostrov once, believing incorrectly that his vote for her would count for both elections. Despite the mix-up, Coleman said he’s not going to lose any sleep over it, because “chances are my candidate won’t win.”
Xavier Cisneros, 48, an airline maintenance supervisor who lives in East Honolulu, said it was a little confusing, but he voted for Hanabusa twice. “I guess you had to put a little thought into it,” Cisneros said. “It wasn’t that user-friendly.”
HOW DOES IT LOOK ON THE BALLOT?
The general and special elections for the same office are listed side-by-side on the ballot. In the first column, the general election for the two-year term appears under “Federal Contests,” labeled “U.S. Representative, Dist I.” In the next column, under “Special Election” is the header “U.S. Representative, Dist I Vacancy,” followed by a list of 10 candidates.
“They’re crunching it all up into one ballot, and there are 10 names,” Hanabusa said. “I think that if you weren’t paying attention to it, you would be very confused.”
WHAT ARE THE CAMPAIGNS DOING TO CLARIFY?
Hanabusa’s campaign is running a video ad on local television stations reminding supporters to vote for Hanabusa twice. Ostrov’s campaign has run radio ads and videos online to explain the situation.
Hanabusa said the special election could have been held earlier by mail.
“The way it is now, the district went unrepresented from June, basically,” Hanabusa said. “It’s a long period of time that the people deserve to have representation.”
WHY DOESN’T THE BALLOT MAKE IT CLEAR?
The order that the races appear on the ballot is prescribed by state law, Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said. “We couldn’t put it on the back or its own ballot, because the federal-state-county order,” he said.
The Office of Elections distributes an education packet to voters, but the office didn’t include any explanation of the unusual situation in the packet because it’s not a statewide race, he said.
HAS SOMETHING SIMILAR HAPPENED BEFORE?
Yes. In 1986, former U.S. Rep. Cecil Heftel left his House seat to run for governor. In the race to replace him, former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie — then a state lawmaker — lost the primary election but won the special election held the same day to finish Heftel’s term. Abercrombie served the three-month term, and then Republican former U.S. Rep. Pat Saiki served the full two-year term that followed. Later, Abercrombie was elected to the seat and served for nearly a decade.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE RUN FOR A TWO-MONTH GIG?
Democratic candidate Peter Cross, whose name appears first on the ballot, said he hasn’t run for public office before. But the 44-year-old construction manager said he thought the special election would be a good opportunity to try campaigning.
“I believe that everybody deserves a shot, and I think that most of the people that are running out there pretty much have been there for a long time, and people are ready for something new,” Cross said.
Ostrov said she would be excited to serve Hawaii, even if it’s just for two months, and give Hawaii a voice in the Republican majority in the U.S. House. Plus, she thinks the five Democrats listed in the special election could split the Democratic vote.
“I like to think it improves my chances,” Ostrov said.