Sunday, January 14, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Legislative remapping should spur innovations

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Page Editor

For most of us, the news out of the U.S. Census of 2000 was of passing interest.

OK, Hawaii’s population growth has slowed. The mixture of ethnic groups continues to shift. In other words, business as usual.

But there are at least 76 people who are intensely interested in the census, particularly the details that will soon follow the big numbers.

These 76 are the incumbent members of the Hawaii Legislature’s House and Senate.

That’s because while the intricacies of the census may not have much impact on most of us, they are life-and-death details for sitting state lawmakers. After the census comes reapportionment — the redrawing of the lines that make up our legislative districts.

Incumbents have spent considerable time and money getting to know and currying the favor of the districts they now represent. The last thing in the world they want is to see their district redrawn- or, even worse, to find themselves living in a district full of strangers.

But that’s going to happen, at least for some of the incumbent 76. Hawaii’s population is shifting. The Neighbor Islands are growing in population strength relative to Oahu, and West Oahu is booming relative to the rest of Honolulu.

What does that mean? More representative strength for West Oahu, less for the rest of the island. The lines of individual districts will shift toward Ewa; and some of the bigger Ewa districts, now in-filling with new suburbs, will be chopped up into smaller, more compact areas.

Politically, there will be winners and losers galore.

All this helps explain why the selection of reapportionment commissioners will be a matter of intense interest later in the 2001 legislative session. Detailed statistics out of the census aren’t expected until around April, so the reapportionment commission won’t be named anytime soon. There will be nine members, two each from the House and Senate majorities and minorities, plus a ninth, chosen by the first eight.

Their task will be this: Draw district lines that meet the one-person, one-vote standard well enough to avoid a court challenge. And protect, whenever and wherever possible, the district integrity of the incumbents.

In a way, that’s too bad. Because protecting the interest of the incumbents means the commission will be unlikely to seriously consider doing something dramatic, such as returning to a system of multi-member districts. Today, all districts are single-member.

The advantages of a multi-member district system are many. They allow voters to choose more than one kind of candidate to represent their interests.

For instance, they might want one "big picture" type and another more closely attuned to local, or district, concerns.

Or they might want to spread their bets by voting for representatives from more than one party. Not only does this boost opportunities for the major opposition, but it also opens the door for Hawaii’s fledgling third parties.

Hawaii got its single-member district system courtesy of the federal court, which stepped in when politics kept a previous reapportionment commission from cutting up the districts in a way that satisfactorily met the one-person, one-vote rule.

There is nothing in either the state or federal constitutions that would prevent the next batch of reapportionment commissioners from returning to a multi-member system, either in the Senate alone or in both houses.

They would simply have to look beyond their own narrow political self-interest.

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