No lawsuits have been filed yet over the state redistricting panel’s decision to count non-resident military and others when redrawing Hawaii’s political boundaries. But that doesn’t mean the panel isn’t bracing itself for one.
The state Reapportionment Commission says it will draw up plans for different population base scenarios, hedging against the possibility of a lawsuit challenging its approach.
One commission member said doing so “should not be that difficult.”
The group voted 8-1 last month to include non-resident military personnel as well as sentenced felons and college students — the basic Census population — as part of political district populations. Those groups were not included in the 2001 count that determined current House and Senate districts.
The U.S. military presence in Hawaii is heavily concentrated on Oahu, as is the population of out-of-state students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as well as Brigham Young University-Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University.
Several lawmakers and residents have asked the commission to revisit its decision, which could likely cost the Big Island a Senate seat it would otherwise gain due to population growth since 2001. The panel is working on a tight deadline. It must publish its proposed plan by Aug. 7 and adopt a final plan by Sept. 26.
At a commission meeting Tuesday, chairwoman Victoria Marks suggested that the commission run several plans, using different population bases.
“There’s been talk … about us getting sued,” Marks said during the meeting. “It might be wise for the commission to have as part of its report, to have a plan which will reflect a different population base, so the court would … have a different plan at the ready.”
The commission is awaiting information from the Department of Defense regarding so-called “sponsors” — persons in the military who are stationed in Hawaii, but claim residence in another state. It’s also awaiting non-resident student numbers from the University of Hawaii system.
But the military and university can’t break the populations down by geographic areas known as “Census blocks.” So the numbers could prove to be unhelpful if the commission then tries to “extract” those populations based on where they live.
“The information will support or not support the decision we’ve made,” said commission member Anthony Takitani, a Maui resident who cast the only vote against counting military, students and felons. “Is there a possibility we’ll be working on more than one plan?”
Commission member Terry Thomason said the group can only do its best with whatever information the military and UH provide, while “fulfilling a duty to make sure we have equitable representation.”
“If we can get it, it will change the way the vote went,” he said of the military and UH population information. “If we can be more precise in our counts, then maybe we could have a re-vote,” he said of the 8-1 decision.
Commission member Harold Masumoto, who served on the 2001 reapportionment commission, said drawing up additional plans “should not be that difficult.”
Talks of possible litigation came up during a meeting of the commission’s neighbor island advisory groups for Maui and the Big Island, which held a joint meeting Tuesday.
Members of the public aired what they thought were reasons for legal challenges, including violations of the state’s Sunshine Law having to do with advance notice of meetings. While Marks disagreed with those claims, saying she felt there was plenty of public notice for the vote, the commission obviously is taking the possibility seriously.
Madge Schaefer, chair of the Maui advisory council, expressed confidence that once the commission takes their decision out to the neighbor islands for public input, residents might be able to sway the commission’s decision. That’s what happened a decade ago with the last commission.
“The people of Maui came out,” she said. “They were single-handedly responsible for the chairman to change his vote because there was such outrage at the injustice to the neighbor islands.”
She said challenging the decision in court wouldn’t be something the advisory councils could do.
“It’s not something we can take on as councils, but we can support and encourage those who might be able to take that litigation on should it become necessary,” Schaefer said.
She also said that the councils wouldn’t appeal alleged Sunshine Law violations to the Office of Information Practices.
“We believe at this time, the greater issue is the issue of whether or not non-military and their dependents should be counted or not,” she said. “There are other people who can certainly raise the issue with the Office of Information Practices.”
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues