Pity the poor Hawaii voter. When half the state's residents head to the polls on Jan. 4 for a special congressional election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, they will select from a bewildering list of 44 candidates.
You read that right. With that many names, each voter's slip may look more like an itemized phone bill than a traditional ballot.
Though the winner of the election will most likely come from the half-dozen or so high-profile politicians in the race, the ragtag runners filling out the remainder of the marathon roster are affecting the outcome in interesting ways. Political wags are refusing to handicap the race, for instance, and no one is polling Hawaii voters. The extreme example of democracy is making for a campaign season that's more colorful than a tourist's lei.
"It's definitely not boring," says Neil Milner, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii.
How could it be, when the mix includes the octogenarian former mayor of Honolulu, a cellist, an electrician, and a recovering drug addict?
Even more unconventional than the candidates themselves are some of the platforms they're touting.
Take Paul Britos, for example. The centerpiece of the 63-year-old retiree's campaign is a proposal to give Hawaii an economic boost by building a massive three-tower business complex that includes a senior care center and high wires for tightrope acts.
Another bold initiative comes from Mark McNett, who won almost one percent of the votes in the Nov. 30 election to decide who would temporarily fill Ms. Mink's seat for two months. He plans to introduce a "Senate cosponsored resolution mandating that the US pledge 'omnilateral' world disarmanent to the United Nations."
Then there is Art Reyes, a retired US Navy engineer who pledges to build bridges connecting all of Hawaii's Islands, a monumental feat costing billions.
No doubt, the campaign is hardly politics as usual in Hawaii. The sheer number of candidates is the result of a "special election" in which almost no rules apply and a bare plurality wins. "Everybody and his uncle thinks he or she has a chance of putting together a sliver of votes that will constitute a plurality in a multicandidate field," explains Dan Boylan, a Hawaii political analyst.
Fewer ordinary citizens may have thought of running in a race against Mink, the longtime Democratic incumbent. But this election is wide open, especially since neither party has chosen to endorse a candidate in the free-for-all.
The more energetic of the lesser players are running vigorous campaigns, staking out malls and waving signs on busy streets. Some are buying radio airtime or a television spot or two. But few have the resources to hit big media - Mr. McNett, for example, has spent a grand total of $15 on political advertising and has refused any contributions.
Not surprising, then, the majority of the candidates are barely visible on the political landscape. In most cases they're barely visible on the landscape, period, since Hawaii consists of six major islands.
Today's campaign stop, Maui ...
Even the leading candidates are struggling to canvas the territory. The district encompasses all of Hawaii except for urban Honolulu. The only convenient way to travel between these regions is via air. In the shortened run-up to the Jan. 4 affair, simply showing one's face in all the various parts of the district has become a logistical nightmare.
That complicates matters for candidates because of the sheer diverse spectrum of political microclimates in the archipelago, ranging from conservative bastions such as Kihei, Maui, to liberal haunts such as Hanalei, Kauai. Furthermore, Hawaii's political makeup is undergoing significant shifts.
"There are very strong signs that demographically the strengths of the Republican party in Hawaii are growing stronger and the strengths of the Democratic Party are growing weaker," says Mr. Boylan.
The analyst points to an influx of wealthy Caucasian retirees and the rapid growth of big-box fundamentalist church congregations in the islands as the reason for the tilt toward the right. Plus, the shrinking population of Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJAs) in Hawaii is depriving Democrats of one of their staunchest bases. Even union voting for Democrats has eroded in recent elections. "As the unions become more white collar they are less easy to deliver," says Boylan.
Demoralized after their inability to put a Democrat in the governor's chair, the state's unions will probably make a poor turnout on Saturday.
For their part, Hawaii Democrats remain upbeat. Candidate Ed Case, the brother of AOL chairman Steve Case, won the special election in November to occupy Mink's vacant seat for five weeks. He continues to run a strong campaign as he competes not only against Republicans, but also against several Democratic state legislators and Mink's husband, John.
One of the challenges facing the leading candidates is a lack of funds to get the message out. "I can't imagine there is a lot of political money out there left over after the gubernatorial election last Nov. 5," opines Boylan. The four front-runners have managed a handful of television spots but with sparse coffers the advertising blitz has been anything but.
Some smaller candidates hope that, even without the benefit of a massive campaign, their participation in the race will lead to public debate of their ideas.
"I hope to get attention. I am more of a philosophical candidate than anything else," says Jeff Mallan, a Kauai Libertarian and perennial candidate, taking the interview from the comfort of his living room home in Kapaa. Mr. Mallan garnered 33 votes out of a statewide total of 46,216 in the Nov. 30 special congressional election to temporarily fill Mink's seat.
While no one begrudges the right of longshots such as Mallan to take part in the election, many fear that the traffic jam on the ballot will confuse the electorate.
John Marks, an accountant in the beachside town of Kailua on the most populous island of Oahu, knows who he is going to vote for. But he fears many of his friends - who have not followed the election as avidly - might get lost in the booth. "I am not sure they all understand what will be on the ballot. If they don't specifically know who they are going to vote for in advance, it might be pretty hard to tell who is who," says Mr. Marks.
Few expect any of the lesser candidates to win more than a thousand votes. But collectively they could siphon off enough at the margin to undermine a victory for one of the front-runners. That factor, plus an expected low voter turnout could prove an opening for the surging Republican Party in this historically Democratic state.