Population shifts and military residency are among factors in the maze to redraw political districts
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 22, 2011
If democracy is the final destination, a reapportionment plan could be described as the roadmap that gets people there. Reapportionment determines the geographic districts that are represented in the legislative branch, and the number of representatives the voters in the districts get to choose. Populations endlessly grow and migrate around, so periodically the map needs amending to keep up with the shifting political landscape.
In Hawaii, “periodically” means every 10 years, according to the state Constitution, so now the Reapportionment Commission has just begun the work of redefining the districts that send representatives and senators to the state and U.S. Capitol buildings.
At the moment, the work is proceeding slowly and quietly — the nine commissioners are still waiting for the money to hire staff and get going in earnest.
But the whole process should get noisier over the course of the next few months when the panel will create its new voting maps because some contentious questions are likely to come up:
>> Who gets counted in calculating the population of a district? The feds have answered that question for congressional purposes — the whole resident population counts — but at the state level, the reapportionment panel gets to decide. Military residents and dependents? Out-of-state college students? Both of those groups are excluded now, but the commission could change course. Including military populations would give Oahu even more representatives than it has now.
>> Once the lines get drawn, which incumbents suddenly find themselves in the same district as other members of the state House and Senate? One of the things for the public to watch is which politicians must battle for their seats and which still have their voter base to themselves.
>> How many seats are available in each district? Until 1982, legislative districts included some with single representatives and some multimember districts. A federal lawsuit forced the switch to single-member districts.
But recently Gov. Neil Abercrombie observed that multi-member districts used to give political newcomers a better chance of being elected, as the second- or third-highest vote-getter and proposed that the scheme get another look.
Victoria Marks, the retired judge and now court-appointed chairwoman of the commission, said all these issues will be considered, viewed through the prism of a basic democratic principle.
“It’s one man, one vote,” she said. “Every vote should be counted as equally as possible.”
John Carroll, attorney and former Republican state senator, does not have fond memories of his close encounter with the state Reapportionment Commission about 30 years ago. Carroll, who ran for office most recently in the 2010 gubernatorial race, had lost his Senate seat back when he and the current governor were two of four senators representing the same district.
Carroll blamed that loss in part on the multimember district and the practice of "plunking" — incumbents pressing voters to direct their votes only to one or two of the favored candidates, a tactic that favored the majority party. The system was inherently unfair, he said.
Carroll became the lead counsel in a federal lawsuit by the Hawaii Republican Party that ultimately got the multimember reapportionment plan thrown out and redone in 1982.
Reapportionment, the process of redrawing voter districts based on updated Census figures, has been based on political considerations, he said. Lines sometimes came down right where they would separate an incumbent from his or her usual constituents.
"It was based on who was running the Reapportionment Commission, and whatever works for them is what they'd do," Carroll said. "They were asking me when they were redistricting, they would ask us what we would like. The idea was, ‘You work with us, we work with you.'"
The 2010 federal Census has calculated Hawaii's total resident population at about 1.36 million, and now the newly appointed commission must figure out how to apportion legislative seats among those voters, so that everyone can be represented fairly.
What dredged up Carroll's old history was Gov. Neil Abercrombie's recent remarks in praise of multimember districts. Speaking earlier this month at an Oahu Democratic Party convention, Abercrombie remembered how they gave lesser-known candidates a chance to serve alongside veterans, bringing more newcomers into politics.
"You can say, ‘Yes, there may be a big dog in this district here, but this little puppy wants to have a shot,'" he said at the time. "‘And can you give me a chance?'"
Abercrombie has a point. According to a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis issued a year after single-member districts were instituted, Republicans occupied the Capitol in greater numbers under the old system. In 1980, 23 percent of all multimember House races and 50 percent of those in the Senate elected members of both parties. Other factors have contributed to the withering Republican minority caucus, but arguably the GOP would fare better if more than the top vote-getter could be seated in each district.
The new commission is seeking legal advice on whether to consider again alloting more than one member to districts. But it's anything but clear that this is likely.
MEETING TIME FOR COMMISSIONThe state Reapportionment Commission will meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday in room 329 of the state Capitol. Meetings are open to the public. Deputy Attorney General Brian Aburano, who was the deputy advising the last commission, will give an overview of the state’s reapportionment history.
The state Constitution gives the commission 100 days from the date the final member was certified by the state Supreme Court — April 29 — to prepare a draft plan setting boundaries. Currently, there are two congressional districts; the state House has 51 districts and state Senate has 25. A 50-day public comment period will begin the week of Aug. 8 and the final plan would be issued the week of Sept. 26.
MEMBERS ON A MISSIONVictoria Marks is chairing the commission. Other members are Calvert Chipchase, Clarice Hashimoto, Harold S. Masumoto, Elisabeth N. Moore, Dylan Nonaka, Lorrie Lee Stone, Anthony Takitani and Terry E. Thomason.
A three-judge panel in the 1982 U.S. District Court case, Travis v. King, agreed with the GOP contention that voters in multimember districts had an unfair advantage over those in districts that had only one member. The result, the court found, ran afoul of "one person, one vote" constitutional standards. The commission would have to overcome that problem in any new multimember scheme.
Even once the panel dispenses with this issue, there are other challenges arising from Hawaii's unique characteristics.
In a small state, relatively small changes in the numbers can have a significant effect on the relative weight they give to any single district.
And in a state with population scattered across islands and separated by mountain ridges, this can make it tricky to hew closely to the guidelines set out by the state Office of Elections:
» Districts should take in compact geographic areas and be contiguous.
» As much as possible, socioeconomic communities should remain intact in a single district; splitting these populations between adjoining districts submerges the political voice of that neighborhood.
» Districts should be roughly the same size in population.
There are competing interest groups in all of this. One dividing line separates Oahu from the neighbor islands. Whether Oahu gets more or fewer representatives depends in part on how the commission decides to treat special populations. Up for debate is whether sentenced felons are counted as part of the population base, as well as college students attending school out of state.
However, it's the issue of military families that is most relevant, said Anthony Takitani, a Maui attorney and one of four appointees to the panel by the Legislature's Democratic majority. If military people are counted — they are now excluded — they give greater weight to Oahu where all the bases are located, he said.
"It will affect neighbor island representation," he said. "I'm the only neighbor islander on the commission."
Input by advisory councils set up for each county will help ensure that lines aren't drawn through existing communities across the state, Takitani added.
There are also partisan interests in redistricting.
"It's extremely important because it will shape the political landscape for the next 10 years," said Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the state GOP and one of four Republicans named by the minority caucus.
"We want to see communities represented in a way that makes sense," Nonaka added. "What we're going to try to avoid are the inter-county ‘canoe districts.'"
That was a reference to the practice, more common in the past, of combining islands in a single Senate district. The remaining canoe districts — those linking Lanai and Molokai with part of Maui and Kauai with Niihau — may be unavoidable.
Under the Constitution, the eight appointees were to select a ninth member to chair the panel. However, they could not agree on one, so the state Supreme Court stepped in to bridge the political split and named Victoria Marks, a former judge, to the chair.
Marks is keeping her focus on the calendar — the draft plan will be due in early August — not on politics.
"I don't think I can explain the partisan tension, nor do I have a great interest in it," she said. "I think they are all good, competent, honorable people, and I think we will all work together fine."