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Multimember districts OK, redistricting panel told


The state Attorney General’s Office has advised commissioners redrawing the state’s political boundaries that they can consider going back to multimember legislative districts.

The legal advice letter says the reapportionment commission is not constitutionally prohibited from dividing the state into multimember districts provided such districts do not dilute racial or political groups within the voting population.

Hawaii had districts represented by more than one lawmaker until 1982, when a federal lawsuit challenged the practice as a violation of the principle of "one man, one vote."

The commission, which is redrawing voting district boundaries based on the results of the 2010 census, has asked its county advisory councils whether there is interest in multimember districts. The commission is expected to discuss the issue at a meeting today at the state Capitol.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, in a speech to Oahu Demo­crats in May, said he might propose a constitutional amendment next year asking voters whether they want multimember districts.

The attorney general’s advice, provided at the commission’s request, means the panel can adopt multimember districts without a constitutional amendment.

Joshua Wisch, an Attorney General’s Office spokesman, declined to provide a copy of the legal advisory, citing attorney-client privilege.

Two sources familiar with the letter, speaking privately, described the attorney general’s advice.

The U.S. District Court, in Travis v. King in 1982, found that the state’s reapportionment plan was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment because district boundaries were based on registered voters rather than population and had too much deviation. The court-monitored replacement plan divided the state into single-member districts based on population.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that multimember districts are legally permissible provided they do not diminish the voting strength of racial or political groups. Multimember districts are prohibited, however, in drawing boundaries for U.S. House districts.

Tony Gill, an attorney and the chairman of the Oahu Democrats, said Democratic governors such as Abercrombie and Ben Cayetano would likely not have won early political office if not for multimember districts.

Republicans were behind the legal challenge in 1982, a move some in the GOP now believe was a mistake, since Republicans’ numbers have declined at the state Legislature.

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