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Federal lawsuit filed to block Native Hawaiian election

Susan Essoyan
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CTY - Renwick "Uncle Joe" Tassill speaks during the second public meeting in a native Hawaiian community put on by the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at Nanaikapono Elementary School in Waianae. The U.S. Department of the Interior has scheduled a series of three-hour public meetings in Hawaii and Native American communities on the mainland to solicit comments and feedback on whether and how the process of reestablishing a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians should move forward. (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Jamm Aquino).

Four Native Hawaiians and two non-Hawaiians filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu seeking to block a “race-based” and “viewpoint-based” election planned this fall as a step toward establishing a sovereign Hawaiian government.

The lawsuit, which was filed against the state of Hawaii, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees and other “agents of the state,” argues that the election violates the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by using race and political qualifications to determine voter eligibility.

The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission recently published a list of 95,000 Native Hawaiians eligible to vote for delegates later this year to a governance aha, or constitutional convention to be held next year. The election is being overseen by an independent group, Na‘i Aupuni, which is funded by OHA grants through the Akamai Foundation.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Keli‘i Akina, Kealii Makekau, Joseph Kent, Yoshimasa Sean Mitsui, Pedro Kana‘e Gapero and Melissa Leina‘ala Moniz. They are represented by Michael Lilly, a former state attorney general, who brought the suit on behalf of Judicial Watch, a nonprofit.

According to the suit, Akina and Makekau, both Native Hawaiian, are excluded from the roll because they cannot affirm the political declaration required for registration. Along with proving Native Hawaiian ancestry, registrants must “affirm the unrelinquished sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people and my intent to participate in the process of self-governance.”

Gapero and Moniz contend they were registered on the Native Hawaiian Roll without their consent. Kent and Mitsui say they were racially discriminated against when excluded from the roll because of race.

All six are Hawaii residents, except Moniz, who lives in Texas.

The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission launched its registry campaign in 2012, under a law passed the year before that aimed to identify and certify Native Hawaiians in order to facilitate their self-governance. The commission signed up more than 40,000 people, and also incorporated names from previous Native Hawaiian registries.

The defendants named in the suit are the state of Hawaii, Gov. David Ige; OHA trustees; Native Hawaiian Roll commissioners and their executive director, all in their official capacity; the Akamai Foundation and the Na‘i Aupuni Foundation.

“This lawsuit is about preserving the Aloha Spirit and the unity of all people in Hawaii,” said Akina, a plaintiff and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. “Instead of OHA and the State continuing to waste millions of dollars on the pursuit of a political sovereignty campaign, they need to use these precious funds to meet the real needs of Hawaiians for housing, jobs, education, and health care.”

“Who would believe that in this day and age U.S. citizens are being denied access to the right to vote explicitly because of their race and their points of view?” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. 

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