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Multimember districts being talked up again

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The subject is arcane, but the debate has been fierce and long lasting.

Multimember legislative districts versus the principle of one person, one vote.

Back in the 1950s, multimember districts, where more than one representative or senator is elected in a district, held sway across the country.

Hawaii had them until 1981, when the local Republican Party won a federal lawsuit. The GOP argued that if a voter was selecting the top two or three or four candidates, you really didn’t know whom you were voting for and then when the group was elected, you didn’t know who your representative was.

The idea lived only in political debate circles until last week, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie, at the Oahu county Democratic convention, brought up the issue.

The governor likes to fondly recall when he was serving in the Legislature and as the outspoken maverick in the traditional Democratic area of Manoa, would still get one of the four votes.

"You can say, ‘Yes, there may be a big dog in this district here, but this little puppy wants to have a shot, and can you give me a shot?’" Abercrombie told his fellow Democrats.

Abercrombie now wants more than a shot; he told delegates that they should support a ballot question in 2012 asking voters whether they want to return to multimember districts.

Abercrombie’s own old 6th Senate District was an odd political creation. In 1978 he and the late Anson Chong were Democratic senators, but because the district stretched down to Waikiki and also into the more affluent areas of Makiki, there were two Republicans, John Carroll and Wadsworth Yee.

Carroll then lost his 1980 election and went on with then-GOP attorney David Ezra, who is now a federal judge, to sue and overturn the multimember district scheme, which was part of the 1981 redistricting plan.

He still complains that the unions supported only one candidate in the 1980 race, former Sen. Clifford Uwaine, who would later be found guilty in an unrelated voter fraud case. But back then, Uwaine and also Abercrombie benefited from "plunking," which means voting for just one candidate in a multimember district. The effect of plunking is to give extra weight to your one candidate, rather than diluting your vote by voting for several candidates.

Abercrombie usually benefited from the plunk vote. For instance in 1978, according to state voter records, 32 percent of those who voted cast their votes only for Abercrombie and did not use their three other votes.

Plunking benefits specific political forces: either unions, a political party or an issue group.

Interestingly, if Democrat Abercrombie wants multimember districts and the GOP’s Carroll thinks they are the anathema of democracy, the issue still is not clear.

Former state Sen. Fred Rohlfing, in his autobiography "Island Son," called Carroll’s lawsuit "a Republican death wish granted."

He explained that even as a Republican winning in GOP areas of East Honolulu, he could still get votes in Democratic strongholds of Palolo and Kapahulu. With the Democrats rarely fielding more than one or two strong vote-getters in the multimember district, Rohlfing would add to his strong GOP base and usually come out on top.

"This single-member plan is the worst thing for the state’s minority GOP," Rohlfing wrote.

Rohlfing called the team of Carroll and Ezra "over-eager reformers." Now it is interesting to see that Democrat Abercrombie is taking up the cause.


Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at

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