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Special coverage of the 2020 general election airs and streams on Hawaii Public Radio beginning Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m. Hear NPR analysis and local insights into the results and the aftermath airing on HPR-1 and streaming on hawaiipublicradio.org and our mobile app.

Voting For OHA Candidates May Be a Right, But It's Not A Custom

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Catherine Cruz/Hawaii Public Radio
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Office of Hawaiian Affairs headquarters in Iwilei, O'ahu.

Casting a ballot in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs election is a right shared by all Hawai?i voters - both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian. But the consistently high number of blank votes cast in the OHA races show that while everyone can vote for OHA, it's certainly not the custom.

As has been the case in past elections, more blank votes were cast in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs races than actual votes. For Keoni Souza, runner-up in OHA’s trustee at-large race, the number of blank votes was greater than the margin of victory in his race.

“I’m not surprised,” says Souza. “I expected blank votes, but that high?!”

Souza trailed incumbent trustee Keli?i Akina in the primary election by more than 16,000 votes. The number of blank votes in that race was upwards of 182,000. 

“When you look at it, there are 20 candidates this year in the primary for OHA in various seats. And that's a lot of people to know,” says Akina. “They are not necessarily known to the public and so the average voter simply doesn't know who's on the list.”

There were four OHA races on the ballot this primary election. On Kaua?i, trustee Dan Ahuna escaped the runoff in the general election by winning more than 50 percent of the vote.  Moloka?i newcomer Luana Alapa won the primary and will face incumbent Colette Machado, who’s held the seat since 1996, in the general election. Akina and Souza will face off in November as well for the OHA at-large seat.

And on the Big Island, a seat left vacant by former OHA Trustee Bob Lindsey is up for grabs. His nephew Keola Lindsey won the primary and will face Mauna Kea activist Lanakila Mangauil in November.

In this primary election, more than 814,000 blank votes were cast in the OHA races. Akina says candidates are partly to blame for not helping voters understand what OHA does or why they should vote. Souza gets the sense that some forgo the vote out of respect.

“Because of the way the OHA is set up, they feel the organization represents native Hawaiians and they feel that they shouldn’t have a say in what happens to native Hawaiians,” says Souza.

Mehanaokal? Hind, director of community engagement at OHA, says the state agency is aware of the high rate of blank votes. She says OHA plans to ramp up voter engagement efforts between now and the November election.

“Since the face-to-face kind of outreach couldn’t happen during this COVID period, we launched Aloha Rising, which was a webinar series that we did to introduce our community to topics mostly of history so that they would know that there is a reason why you should vote,” says Hind.

The general election results should show if candidates in the OHA races – and OHA itself - can change more of those votes from blanks to meaningful choices.

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