Legislature Seeks to Reform OHA Elections

Feb 6, 2019

Credit Catherine Cruz/Hawaii Public Radio

State lawmakers are seeking to change the way Hawaiʻi votes for trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. 

Hawaiʻi state legislators have taken the first step toward overhauling the elections process for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees. The Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee started with campaign funding and the way candidatesʻ names are listed on the ballots.  

“Right now, all OHA candidates can get is $1,500 in public funding for a statewide race which you know candidates have felt are very unfair,” says Waiʻanae Senator Maile Shimabukuro, who chairs the committee. “When you look at the Lieutenant Governor which I think is like $100,000 so its a dramatic difference.”

Senate Bill 728 seeks to increase the amount of public funding available to OHA candidates. It’s a measure supported by current OHA Trustee Keliʻi Akina.

“Each trustee, unlike a legislator, actually has to campaign on each and every island,” says Akina, “Therefore it would only be fair that they are able to raise an amount of money that allows them to do that.”

The bill passed out of committee with amendments that increase the amount to $42,000 per election year but only after candidates raise a minimum of $5,000.

Another bill proposed to place the names on a ballot in a random order, rather than alphabetical order. Something OHA beneficiary Kauʻi Pratt-Aquino hopes will allow candidates to move beyond name recognition.

“Itʻs no secret that a candidate with their last name starting with the letter A has an advantage over every other candidate in the race. And that has not have to do with merit at all,” says Pratt-Aquino, “What these bills try to do is put candidates on equal footing.”

Former OHA candidate Sam Wilder King II sees it as an opportunity to combat low voter participation in OHA races.

“The point is that when you randomize it there’s going to be a bunch of people who are still going to vote for the first name on the ballot even if it starts with Z,” says King, “They’re still gonna vote for the first name on the ballot. It’s just that now everyone will get the same number of apathy votes and then the actual active votes will decide the election.”

That issue is covered by Senate Bill 729 – which passed out of committee as is. Shimabukuro says it has a good chance of becoming law because it doesnʻt require any funding to implement. Former OHA candidate Esther Kiaʻāina testified in support of the legislature’s efforts.

“All of these tools cumulatively would be helpful in just providing, one, equity for candidates that run for OHA and better vetting for the electorate,” says Kiaʻāina.

Two bills calling for trustee term limits were deferred by the committee. Shimabukuro called the measure “controversial” but worthy of discussion.