Should Non-Hawaiians Vote in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Elections?

Primary election to include OHA races for the first time.


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It’s been 14 years since the courts gave non-Hawaiians the right to vote in Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections, which were previously restricted to Native Hawaiians only.

Despite the Rice v. Cayetano verdict clearing the way legally, many non-Hawaiians still feel that OHA trustees should be chosen by Native Hawaiians, who directly benefit from OHA programs and can best decide who will represent their interests. At face value, it can seem like a respectful and politically correct decision. But is it, really?

Not necessarily, according to some Hawaiians—including Louise Carpenter, who says in no uncertain terms that anyone who thinks that OHA’s programs don’t benefit all of Hawaii is wrong. Her point, in a nutshell, is that if the status of Native Hawaiians improves, it’ll be better for the whole state.

(Check out OHA’s Native Hawaiian Data Book if you have any questions about the status of Native Hawaiians and what OHA’s goals are.)

Louise is married to Dante Carpenter, who has had a colorful, if not controversial, history with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. He has been the agency’s administrator, as well as one of its trustees. Like his wife, he believes that everyone should vote, and he agrees with the Rice v. Cayetano verdict. He knows rancher Harold Rice well, and says that Rice has always had respect for Native Hawaiians.

Carpenter adds that Rice knew that in the ancient Hawaiian Kingdom, everyone was considered a resident, regardless of their nationality. It was an inclusive, not exclusive, society. “I think everyone has a vested interest in the success of the Hawaiian (self-determination) situation being reconciled,” he said. After all, if Hawaiians achieve self-governance, they’ll still have to coexist with non-Hawaiians. “We’re a total body, we won’t be separate and distinct from each other.”

Don’t get us wrong. Not everyone agrees that non-Hawaiians should have a say in Hawaiian Affairs, and some Hawaiians are opposed to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs itself existing as a quasi-state agency, rather than an independent Hawaiian one.

For a few years after OHA’s elections were opened to everyone, it wasn’t hard to find people who would say—on the record—that it was a mistake for non-Native Hawaiians to vote in OHA contests. I was surprised to find (in nearly two weeks of reaching out to a variety of people) and talking to more than a half-dozen native Hawaiians who disagree on many other issues, they all agreed that non-Hawaiian voters should vote for OHA’s trustees (with more than one offering a reminder to actually do homework on the candidates first).

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which has generally been opposed to Native Hawaiians receiving preferential treatment from the government, believes everyone should vote for OHA trustees. President and CEO Keli’i Akina explained why over email:

“As a native Hawaiian, I believe it is important for all registered voters, regardless of race, to participate in the election of OHA Trustees. This is the way to be culturally respectful because it honors the Hawaiian Kingdom practice that citizenship was not based upon race,” he wrote.

“From the time of Kamehameha the First to Queen Liliuokalani, leaders of multiple ethnicities were appointed to manage the Kingdom’s land and assets for the benefit of all.  Hawaii was the first place in what is now the United States where citizenship and voting were based upon ‘the content of one’s heart, not the color of one’s skin.’”

Voting is a personal decision, which is why there’s a curtain at the voting booths. Before you close that curtain behind you, take a moment to consider which is more of a disservice: to vote for OHA trustees or to abstain?

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Whether you decide to vote in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections or not, be aware that your decision will need to come earlier than in prior elections because, for the first time, OHA candidates will be on the primary election ballot.

This change means that any time there are three or more candidates for an island resident seat, or more than seven at-large candidates, they’ll be winnowed down in the primary—either to the top two island resident candidates or the top six at large candidates. As in non-partisan county races, anyone who receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary will be automatically elected.

In the committee report on the issue, State Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, chairman of the Committee on Tourism and Hawaiian Affairs offered this explanation:

“The absence of a primary election for the members of the Board of Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs causes a large pool of trustee candidates competing for only a few positions in the general election. A primary election process for the Board of Trustees will serve to narrow the pool of trustee candidates in the general election, limit the significant dispersion of votes that often occurs due to the large pool of candidates, and ensure a more democratic process.”

For context, the new law means that no more than six of the 16 candidates for an at-large seat will move on to the general election.

Read More Stories by Treena Shapiro

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