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Editorial | Island Voices

Reapportionment should adopt multimember districts


As a second-time member of the Maui Advisory Council to our current 2011 State Reapportionment Commission, I am pleased to see the commission’s interest in the views of advisory council members and others on possible restoration of multimember legislative districts (MMDs) in the new plan.

On May 10, the commission’s chairwoman directed a letter to the attorney general inquiring whether legislative MMDs are allowable under our state and federal constitutions, and (assuming that question is answered affirmatively) whether we can have both multimember districts and single-member districts. I believe there is nothing in either constitution or prior cases that preclude such a change from today’s single-member districts to multimember ones, and doing so for one legislative body and not the other.

When we became a state in 1959, Hawaii’s bicameral Legislature was elected employing MMDs for both the Senate and the House. For example, four senators and four representatives were elected in the general election from the districts of East Honolulu from a party slate of up to four selected by each party in the primary. Every voter in our district could cast up to four votes for both senators and representatives.

This representation structure, however, came tumbling down in 1981 when Hawaii’s federal trial court ruled in favor of a plan that featured solely single-member districts (SMDs) in Travis v. King. Court masters fashioned a temporary reapportionment plan that used total population less certain transient populations and used only SMDs. Conservative Republicans at the time argued — mistakenly, I believe — that the Legislature needed to be divided into SMDs in order to comply with the earlier decisive U.S. case of Reynolds v. Sims in 1964. No appeal was filed, hence, the appellate federal courts have not been heard from on the appropriateness of MMDs in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, other legislative bodies in Hawaii, specifically the neighbor island county councils, have not switched to single-member districts. As a Maui voter, I have a resident Council member but I also vote for the other eight members of the Council, even the ones from other islands (Molokai and Lanai). Is the Maui Council in violation of the Constitution? My answer is no. Nor will the creation of multimember districts by the 2011 Reapportionment Commission require a constitutional amendment or other submission to the electorate, as was suggested recently by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

MMDs encourage legislators to work together, particularly on money/home district projects. Many issues can be handled in bipartisan fashion. Even substantive issues can be the subject of a team effort. Democratic Sen. Vince Yano and I, elected from the same district in the 1970s, introduced a comprehensive affordable-housing proposal. This collegiality was far superior to today’s partisan harangues and "gotcha" politics.

Evaluating the effect of Travis v. King and SMDs, former Hawaii Democrat Party officer Chuck Freedman rightly declared, "Seldom has reform sounded better and failed more miserably."

To allow for balance, I recommend that the commission authorize a Senate of 25 members elected from multimember districts and a House of 51 members elected from single-member districts.

Along with former Democratic Lt. Gov. Nelson Doi, I have long supported a unicameral (one house only) Legislature made up of 35 senators. To do this would require change in our Constitution. But, lacking a unicameral set-up, having the 25-member Senate elected on a multimember basis would be the best way to avoid today’s mirror-image representation of the House and Senate elected from SMDs that is clearly redundant and unnecessarily expensive.

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