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Count military in redistricting

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

A study about Hawaii's military economy, published in June by the Rand Corp. and based on 2009 numbers, estimates that more than 100,000 armed services members and their dependents call Hawaii home. Just how or whether they should be counted in the current revision of state election maps is one of the questions consuming the state Reapportionment Commission.

According to past practice — and some interpretations of the state Constitution — they shouldn't be counted in the drawing of voting districts. Defenders of this position argue that very few of them vote in state elections. Also, they say if districts include large military-base areas, the number of actual number of voters electing the district representative will be sparse, giving each voter disproportionate power in an election.

Placing the district boundaries in these cases will be complicated. But the primary injustice lies in continually ignoring such a large and important group in distributing legislative seats.

The goal should be to include military employees and dependents in the constituency of lawmakers elected from their neighborhoods — communities in which military families play an active role. However, it's unclear how soon such a change can be accomplished.

An amendment passed in 1992 requires that only "permanent residents" form the basis of reapportionment plans. But that term has never been defined, even though the 2001 commission recommended that lawmakers do so.

The current panel has requested advice on the population base from the state attorney general, but is not releasing any information from that inquiry to the public. This is a ludicrous position. If ever there was an issue in which the general population has a prevailing interest, it is legal advice about how the general population should figure into the distribution of lawmakers it will elect. The content of these communications should be a matter of public record.

The ideal outcome would be the term "permanent resident" being legally construed as including the military, and then being clearly defined in statute in the coming session. If state lawyers say the Constitution must be changed again to more explicitly include them — for instance, basing population on the most recent Census, as many states do — then that action should be initiated.

Even if active-duty service members have declared some other state as their home of record, they are not visitors, and their dependents have made no such declaration. The entire family pays state general excise taxes, attends schools and uses other state facilities. Many are active in community groups.

Constituents include many civilians who are not here permanently, many noncitizens here through work visas who may have plans to return home at some point. They include other nonvoters, too, such as minor children. But all are counted as people the government serves while they're here. There's no logical reason why military residents should be given any less weight than these people.

Only Kansas and Hawaii exclude the military in reapportionment plans, each for its own reasons. In this state, neighbor islanders argue heatedly that inclusion makes government even more Oahu-centric than it already is: The commission expects that it would add a Senate seat on this island, one that would otherwise go to Hawaii County.

But interisland rivalries can't be the determining factor in reapportionment. If the military adds more heft to the Oahu population, then an accurate reapportionment plan should reflect that.

The Rand study reported that the defense sector adds $12 billion to the state economy. Its contribution in other ways — school participation, community involvement — is invaluable. Creating a government structure that ignores all this simply defies fairness. It's time to acknowledge the true presence of the military in the reapportionment plan.

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