Hawaii considers electing president by popular vote

Mark Niesse // Published March 2, 2008 in Associated Press
Hawaii lawmakers are trying again this year to push through a measure that would elect the president of the United States by a popular vote and ditch the old Electoral College.

But opponents claim the current system protects small states like Hawaii from being rendered insignificant by states with millions of more voters.

The debate in Hawaii falls closely along party lines, with majority Democrats trying to prevent a repeat of the 2000 election when Al Gore lost to President Bush despite receiving the most votes overall.

The measure has passed through committees in both houses and awaits consideration by the full state House and Senate. Hawaii, where Democrats have 86 percent of legislative seats, would be the third state to sign on to the idea, which has already become law in Maryland and New Jersey.

"The national popular vote has everything to do with ensuring that the voters of the nation get a president who they determine," said Rep. Mark Takai, D-Newtown-Pearl City. "We wouldn't have hiccups like we had in the year 2000."

The proposal attempts to nullify the Electoral College system by awarding each state's electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. It would only kick in if states representing a majority of the nation's 538 electoral votes pass laws to make the same change.

Hawaii Republicans argue that the islands shouldn't sacrifice their four electoral votes because they give the state more pull than it would have otherwise.

"This is the best way for us to have a little more power, even if it's only slightly more than the popular vote," said Rep. Kymberly Pine, R-Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point. "If we were all just a popular vote, no one would care ever about Hawaii."

No one cares too much about Hawaii as it is when it comes to presidential politics.

Despite their razor-close race, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the islands before Hawaii's Feb. 19 presidential caucus. Obama's half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, campaigned on his behalf, while Clinton sent her daughter Chelsea.

No presidential candidates campaigned in the islands in 2004 either, although Vice President Dick Cheney did make an appearance when polls showed the race closer than it turned out to be. John Kerry won Hawaii by a wide margin.

"If you're deemed not to be competitive ... you get no attention at all," said Rob Richie, co-author of "Every Vote Equal," about the National Popular Vote initiative. "Under a popular vote, every vote counts and you just can't write off any state."

Hawaii's electoral votes make up about 0.7 percent of the total, compared to the islands' population accounting for only 0.4 percent of the nation's electorate.

Popular vote supporters maintain that a fraction of a percentage point doesn't make a difference because smaller states are largely ignored by presidential candidates anyway.

Those in favor of leaving the system unchanged, including Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who could veto the legislation as she did when it passed last year, say they don't like the possibility that Hawaii's electoral votes could go to a candidate that didn't win in the state.

"Hawaii should not give up her four electoral votes because the rest of the nation decided to vote for another candidate," wrote Republican Jame Schaedel in testimony. "The current system is fair, just and unchanged for over 200 years."

Democrats did not try to override the governor's veto last session.

But Takai says he's hopeful that Democrats will have enough votes this time to mount the two-thirds necessary for an override.