Hawaii’s redistricting process is at a standstill after the U.S. military sent a state commission conflicting sets of data on the number of non-permanent resident personnel and their dependents stationed in the state.

Members of the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission appeared reluctant on Monday to act on a staff report based on a new set of data that suggests Oahu should lose a House seat while the Big Island should gain one.

Doing so would require that the commission scrap proposed final plans for legislative seats and restart the months-long process nine weeks before a court-ordered deadline. The commission decided to put off any votes on how to proceed until a meeting scheduled for Thursday.

The Big Island could gain a House seat if the state reapportionment commission decides to use updated population estimates from the U.S. military. Screenshot: Hawaii Reapportionment Commission/2021

The commission is tasked with redrawing legislative boundaries every decade. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that college students and military who are not permanent residents must be removed from population estimates used to redraw the boundaries.

Last year, the commission removed 65,000 non-resident military from its population count. Data received New Year’s Eve suggests that number should be closer to 100,000.

“From their understanding of what we want, this is the most accurate way to provide the data to us,” Royce Jones, a reapportionment consultant, told the commissioners at a meeting Monday. Jones explained that the discrepancy could be the result of a programming error on the part of the military.

If the new data sets are accurate, the commission may need to redo its reapportionment process. The commission has drawn public scrutiny in the last several months for appearing to draw maps that would favor certain political incumbents, holding most discussions on redistricting behind closed doors and undercounting the number of non-resident military in the islands.

The commission met for more than an hour in a session closed to the public after receiving Jones’ report on the new population estimates. Mark Mugiishi, the commission chairman and CEO of the Hawaii Medical Service Association, said there’s still more issues to work through before Thursday’s meeting.

The commission wants to determine if it should move forward with the 65,000 figure, or with the 99,967 number that the military provided on Friday. The commission may also debate the best method for extracting those individuals from census blocks on military bases and in the surrounding area.

Mugiishi asked Jones and the staff to research those two issues before the next meeting.

The state Supreme Court gave the commission until Feb. 27 to file its final redistricting plans with the state Office of Elections.

Chief Elections Office Scott Nago urged the commissioners on Monday to act before then.

State of Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago at hearing on Mail in Ballot.
Scott Nago, Hawaii’s elections chief, told the commission not to delay in finalizing its reapportionment plans. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

He said that candidates for the 2022 elections can begin filing candidate paperwork March 1. But before filing begins, the office must have updated voter registries with new district numbers and boundaries.

That whole process has taken the office at least one month in past elections, Nago said.

News that more military could be extracted from the population count was met with applause from testifiers who have urged the commission for months to take another look at how non-residents are extracted.

“Going back to the drawing board on maps is frustrating,” Shannon Matson, who ran for a Big Island House seat in 2020, said. “But it’s a huge win for the taxpayers, to do this now, instead of months down the road after a lawsuit at the (Hawaii) Supreme Court.”

The commission was sued in 2011 for its reapportionment plans that apparently undercounted non-residents in the state. The high court ruled in 2012 that the commission needed to redo its redistricting proposals as a result of a lawsuit brought by former Big Island lawmaker Malama Solomon. The commission extracted more than 108,000 non-resident military and college students from the population base after the court ruling.

Still, others believe that not counting military personnel disenfranchises them. Dependent minors still use Hawaii schools, and military spouses use other public facilities, Mary Smart, a retired Navy captain who ran for office in 2018, said.

“If you’re going to take out dependents, spouses especially, they shouldn’t have to pay taxes in Hawaii. We’ve heard taxation without representation is not pono,” Smart said.

If the commission decides to move forward with the higher extraction figure, the Big Island would gain a seat in the House and Oahu would lose a seat.

Where those seats would be was not made clear on Monday.

The commission’s proposed final plan would eliminate an urban Honolulu seat currently held by Rep. Sylvia Luke, who is running for lieutenant governor. Under the current plans, an extra House seat would be created in Ewa.

After the redistricting process in 2012, the Big Island gained a Senate seat after Manoa Valley was condensed into one senate district.

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