Elections have consequences.

Once every decade, those consequences include the power to redraw the boundaries for both chambers of the Hawaii Legislature as well as the state’s two congressional districts in light of new population data from the U.S. Census.

Much of the focus nationwide has been on what the Republican wave in the 2010 election will mean for the face of Congress. But in Hawaii, the impacts could be much more local.

The Associated Press reported that the GOP picked up 680 seats in state legislatures on Nov. 2. Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the AP that Republicans will have “unilateral control” over the redrawing of 195 congressional districts, while Democrats have sole control of 45. That leaves 195 more districts where either both parties share the power or an independent commission makes the decisions.

Hawaii falls into the latter category.

The islands contributed to the large number of GOP gains in state legislatures nationwide, if only slightly. Republicans lost Fred Hemmings‘ long-held seat in the Hawaii Senate, but took control of two House seats from Democrats. Of course, the GOP still faces 24-1 and 43-8 minorities in the two chambers, respectively.

But in Hawaii, one seat is all you need. The state’s rules on redistricting and reapportionment are designed to prevent the politicized redistricting some are bracing for on the mainland.

Article IV of the Hawaii Constitution establishes the Reapportionment Commission, which will be put together between now and May 1, 2011. The president of the Senate and speaker of the House will select two members apiece, as will the minority parties in each of the chambers. Those eight members — four appointed by Democrats and four by Republicans — will then select a ninth member to serve as commission chair. This system, known as a “tie-breaker scheme,” is used by a number of other states.

Within 150 days of the team being put together, it must finalize reapportionment and redistricting plans for both the Hawaii Legislature and U.S. congressional districts. The plans, submitted to the Hawaii Office of Elections, become law upon publication.

The state Constitution also provides some guidance on how best to draw the lines between state House districts, saying, “No district shall be so drawn as to unduly favor a person or political faction” and that districts should be “contiguous” and “compact.” The borders should follow easily recognized features like streets and streams.

The Constitution also includes language designed to discourage the worst kind of redistricting abuse. The process can be manipulated to give one political party or the other — or both — an advantage in holding onto or making electoral strides in certain regions. This practice, known as “gerrymandering,” is the subject of a new film documentary.

“Where practicable, submergence of an area in a larger district wherein substantially different socio-economic interests predominate shall be avoided,” the Constitution states. As one means of keeping that rule in mind, the 2001 Reapportionment Commission received a district-by-district ethnicity breakdown [pdf].

In 2001 and reapportionment years prior to that, the boundary shifts were a response to shifts in population. If the July 2009 population estimates turn out to be accurate when the official 2010 Census figures are released next year, Hawaii’s House districts could be on the move again. Some legislators may find themselves out of a job, and some citizens may find themselves in a new district.

All four of Hawaii’s counties have grown in population since the 2000 Census, the estimates show, but not all at the same pace. The City and County of Honolulu has lost share to each of the neighbor islands, particularly Hawaii County.

Honolulu’s population rose from 876,156 in 2000 to 907,574 in July 2009, an increase of 3.6 percent. In the same time period, the Big Island’s population rose 19.6 percent; Maui County 13.3 percent; and Kauai County 10.3 percent. The state population as a whole grew by 6.9 percent.

County 2000 Census 2000 Share July 2009
Estimate
2009 Share Share Change
Hawaii 148,677 12.3% 177,835 13.7% +1.5%
Honolulu 876,156 72.3% 907,574 70.1% -2.2%
Kauai 58,463 4.8% 64,529 5.0% +0.2%
Maui 128,094 10.6% 145,157 11.2% +0.6%
Total 1,211,537 N/A 1,295,178 N/A N/A

Source: U.S. Census Bureau data

Urban Honolulu’s population is growing even slower than the rest of Oahu. The 85-square-mile Honolulu CDP — the only “Census-designated place” in Hawaii to get updated population estimates throughout the last decade — saw its population rise from 371,657 residents in the 2000 Census to 374,658 as of July 2009, a change of just 0.8 percent.

(The CDP is a smaller subset of Oahu than even the 1st Congressional District, which is commonly referred to as “urban Honolulu” and stretches from Hawaii Kai in the East to Ewa Beach in the West and Mililani in the North.)

During the same time, the population of the remaining 500-some square miles of Oahu rose from 504,499 to 532,916, a 5.6 percent increase. The population of the bulk of the state — everything outside of the CDP, about 6,000 square miles — rose from 839,880 to 920,520, a 9.6 percent increase.

Geography 2000 Census 2000 Share July 2009
Estimate
2009 Share Share Change
Honolulu CDP 371,657 42.4% 374,658 41.3% -1.1%
Rest of Oahu 504,499 57.6% 532,916 58.7% +1.1%
Total 876,156 N/A 907,574 N/A N/A

Source: U.S. Census Bureau data

Put together, the population shifts could force the movement of one or more districts from urban Honolulu to rural Oahu, or from the island of Oahu to one or more of the neighbor islands, probably the Big Island. In 2001, the Ewa plain population had grown relative to East Honolulu, forcing districting shifts.

In addition to its work on the state House and Senate districts, the Reapportionment Commission also handles U.S. congressional district boundaries.

Republican gains, along with a newfound majority of state governorships, position the GOP well for the 2011 redistricting nationally. In September, Election Data Services projected that 12 congressional seats [pdf] would be moved when Census population data is released in early 2011, affecting 18 states.

Even for states that don’t gain or lose a congressional seat — Hawaii is expected to hold steady at two, for example — the district boundaries are still subject to change.

In 2001, the commission’s standards and criteria [pdf] included a provision that the population in the two U.S. House districts be as nearly equal as possible — at most a 1 percent difference, and preferably less than 0.82 percent. The rules also include many of the same guidelines for U.S. House districts as for state Legislature districts.

Adhering to those same guidelines this time around would presumably require the expansion of the land area included in the 1st Congressional District, possibly stretching it toward Kapolei. There are some who are convinced that the district will be reshaped to include Colleen Hanabusa‘s Ko Olina home, saving her the trouble of moving to the district.

If 1991 and 2001 are any indication — and if the Reapportionment Commission follows federal and state laws and its own guidelines — Hawaii’s electoral maps will indeed shift. How exactly that happens will be up to the nine people on the commission.

About the Author