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Editorial | On Politics

In Hawaii, eligible voters count more than people

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Somewhere in your civics-class history, you heard: "One person, one vote."

It is the fair way to set up a democracy, right?

Everywhere except in Hawaii, where the rule is "one registered voter, one vote."

That’s the rule and even the federal courts have said Hawaii is different.

Today the United States Supreme Court is mulling over a reapportionment case from Texas about whether to divvy up the legislative districts by eligible voters rather than the total number of people.

That’s where Hawaii comes in.

Hawaii is that special place.

We are the only state that was once an independent kingdom, the most isolated land mass on the globe and America’s most vital piece of real estate from which to view Asia.

That means Hawaii is singularly important to the U.S. military. When things get hot in Asia, Hawaii floods with service personnel, just in case.

So back in 1966, Justice William Brennan ruled that Hawaii’s "special population problems" justified using registered voters as the base for dividing up districts.

Some thousands of service members coming and going from Hawaii would distort the voter rolls so much the courts said Hawaii could be special, although Brennan noted this wasn’t "for all time or circumstances, in Hawaii or elsewhere."

According to state voting officials, Hawaii does not count about 108,000 service members and dependents, and 15,000 out-of-state students.

Back in 2011, local attorney Robert Thomas sued on behalf of then-state Rep. K. Mark Takai and others claiming the Hawaii interpretation violated the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. Constitution. The real political questions were that if adding everyone who lived in Hawaii as compared to just registered voters would determine whether the Big Island would get another seat in the state Senate and if someone on Oahu would likely lose a seat in the reapportionment process.

Hawaii is the only state other than Kansas that subtracts military and dependents from its state reapportionment numbers.

"As a consequence of Hawaii not counting them, they end up without any representation in any state legislature," Thomas said in an interview last week.

"We argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which protects all persons’ rights to be treated equally, means that the state must start by counting all persons, and if it desires to exclude some people, then it has a high burden to justify those exclusions."

Failing to do that, Thomas argued, leaves the reapportionment process up to "political whims."

Others, however, argued that the real meaning is "equal numbers of voters can vote for proportionally equal numbers of officials."

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the Texas case by October, with no clear timeline for a decision.

Meanwhile, Hawaii will remain an exceptional state that is the exception to constitutional law.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at

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