The process to redraw Hawaii’s political boundaries seems to be drawing to a close even as residents threaten lawsuits to overturn those maps and lawmakers propose changes to the state constitution to make counting Hawaii’s population easier.

The Hawaii Reapportionment Commission touched on some of those issues at what was presumably its last meeting Wednesday. A final batch of maps was approved in January, but commissioners still needed to meet to finalize a report to the Legislature.

Part of that report recommends taking a look at the odd practice in Hawaii of removing military personnel, their dependents and college students from population counts used to perform redistricting.

Last year the commission struggled for months to get an accurate figure on how many people counted in Hawaii’s census population need to be removed for reapportionment purposes.

Residents are preparing to challenge new legislative maps as lawmakers look for fixes to Hawaii’s reapportionment process. Screenshot/2022

The commission was sued in 2012 for not extracting enough non-permanent resident military personnel in the islands. The commission was forced to redraw its maps after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in that case.

Last year, residents raised concerns again, saying that the extraction of military personnel was too low. Commission staff circled back with the U.S. military and restarted the redistricting process in January after new data indicated more military members and their dependents should have been extracted for population counts.

Commissioners have previously complained about the entire process being cumbersome. A measure moving through the Legislature would resolve that dilemma.

Senate Bill 3254 proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would require the commission to use population figures provided by the census instead of performing an extraction.

Hawaii voters approved an amendment to the state constitution in 1992 that required the commission to only count “permanent residents.” SB 3254 would essentially roll back that amendment.

Hawaii is the only state that still requires military and college students to be extracted from population counts, said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who has been critical of the commission’s work this year.

Dela Cruz signed on to SB 3254, which was introduced this session by Sen. Karl Rhoads. The constitutional amendment cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Rhoads chairs, and is likely to also clear the Senate Ways and Means committee, which Dela Cruz heads.

If passed by the Legislature, the constitutional amendment would still need to be approved by voters.

Dela Cruz believes the commission over-extracted military personnel. Initially, the commission proposed extracting about 60,000 members and their dependents. By January, that number grew to more than 100,000. Staff was forced to remove Hawaii residents from off base to meet those new numbers.

“That to me is problematic,” Dela Cruz said.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Sen.Donovan Dela Cruz and other lawmakers want the commission to get more accurate population counts. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The constitutional amendment also gained some support from commissioners at a meeting Wednesday.

“If they are here, and they are counted, we should go with those numbers for future commissions,” commissioner Kevin Rathbun said.

But the commission couldn’t reach a consensus on that issue and instead voted to request that the Legislature either codify a process to extract military personnel, pass the constitutional amendment questions, or create a task force to evaluate the extraction process.

The commissioners also decided that future meetings should be held after normal working hours or on weekends so that more people can attend.

Commissioner Robin Kennedy suggested opening up the secretive process used to redraw district lines. The maps are drawn by a group of four commissioners called the Technical Committee. This year that group included Dylan Nonaka, Charlotte Nekota, Diane Ono and Rathbun.

Nonaka, Ono and Nekota pushed back against the idea of increasing participation in the technical groups meetings. Nonaka worried that could create a chilling effect for commissioners.

“You’d have less communication and less interaction if every single word we said was criticized,” Nonaka said.

Commissioner Randal Nishimura suggested that the technical group videotape its meetings so that the public could see how they redraw maps. But that request was eventually just watered down to a simple request asking future commissions to “enhance participation and transparency.”

Meanwhile, a group of residents has banded together to overturn the commission’s final maps. Waikoloa resident Kathleen Huckabay registered the nonprofit Hawaii Reapportionment Justice Coalition with the state on Feb. 3. The coalition also lists Robert Fox as its registered agent.

Fox set up a GoFundMe to help pay for legal costs associated with the election challenge. The organization has so far raised $11,500 and is shooting for a goal of $25,000.

Fox said the coalition, which is made up of residents from Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, plans to file a legal challenge Thursday asking the courts to overturn the maps. The group is represented by attorney Mateo Caballero.

Fox lives in Manoa, a neighborhood that would have been split under previous drafts of legislative maps from the commission.

“What we want is for the reapportionment commission to follow the law,” Fox said.

HMSA Hawaii Medical Service Association CEO Dr. Mark Mugiishi Covid restrictions
Hawaii Medical Service Association CEO and commission chairman Mark Mugiishi defended the commission’s work Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Residents have contended that the commission did not do that when it failed to follow redistricting guidelines laid out in the constitution, such as making sure each Senate district is made up of two House districts.

East Oahu residents have also taken issue with the map for Senate District 25, which includes the neighborhoods of Kailua and Waimanalo, but wraps around Makapuu Point to capture parts of Hawaii Kai.

Residents from all three of those neighborhoods have been trying to get the commission to redraw those lines and are worried that their concerns are falling on deaf ears. Some argued during public comment at the commission’s meeting Wednesday that those maps dilute the voice of certain communities, particularly Waimanalo, which has a large Native Hawaiian population.

At the end of the comment period, Mark Mugiishi, CEO of the Hawaii Medical Services Association and chairman of the commission, told the public that “listening and hearing is not the same as agreeing.”

“We have heard you, we listened to you. We have taken all the input and we haven’t always agreed. That’s just the way the democratic process works,” Mugiishi said.

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