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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 28, 2005

Akaka bill polls easily swayed

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Columnist

Well! Now that's settled.

Finally, we know what Islanders think about the so-called "Akaka bill" or Hawaiian federal recognition bill.

Nearly 70 percent of us do not support the bill.

No, wait! It turns out that more than 80 percent of us believe Native Hawaiians should have federal recognition and about two-thirds say they like the idea of Hawaiian self-governance as envisioned in the Akaka bill.

How could this be? The answer, obviously enough, is that it depends on the question one asks.

The two diametrically opposed results come from two recent public opinion surveys, one commissioned by the Grassroot Institute of Hawai'i, which has been critical of the Akaka bill, and the other by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which is a big booster.

Which survey do you think found supporters and which found opponents? But of course. The Grassroot Institute found a lot of folks who do not like the Akaka bill as it was described to them.

OHA, meanwhile, found almost as many people in favor of the idea, as described in the OHA survey.

And the descriptions in the two surveys, as well as the sequencing of questions, was decidedly different.

To some degree, this is understandable. After all, no less than Sen. Daniel Akaka himself acknowledges that the recognition bill is deliberately, and somewhat frustratingly, vague.

It sets up a process by which Hawaiians could begin to define themselves as a self-determining political entity that then could enter into negotiations with the state and federal government.

It is not up to the enabling legislation to determine what, if anything, those negotiations might eventually produce, Akaka says.

So, how do you ask a question designed to get a legitimate response?

Complicating the matter is the fact that partisans and opponents of the legislation tend to use rhetoric that oversells its virtues or its dangers.

So, let's look at these two surveys and see if we can understand how they came up with such opposite results:

The Grassroot Institute poll was conducted by a marketing, research and database company out of Virginia, ccAdvertising (doing business as FECResearch), that has a number of conservative clients.

The poll had many of the earmarks of a so-called "push" poll, where the objective is primarily to dispense information or change opinion rather than measure it.

One hint: While a statewide survey in Hawai'i can produce more-than-satisfactory results with 4,000 to 6,000 respondents, this automated poll attempted to reach every household in the state.

That's far in excess of what is needed to get a survey of opinion, but useful if the purpose is to reach as many people as possible with your information.

The survey began with a question on the excise tax and quickly shifted gears to ask: "Do you support laws that provide preferences for people (or) groups based on their race?"

Not surprisingly, 80 percent said they do not.

That, of course, is the position of many opponents of the Akaka bill who argue it will set up preferences for a group of people based on their race. Supporters say the goal is exactly the opposite to recognize Hawaiians, much as Native Americans are recognized, as a political entity.

Having set up the race question, the survey then asks if the respondent supports the Akaka bill, which would "allow Native Hawaiians to create their own government not subject to all the same laws, regulations and taxes that apply to other citizens of Hawai'i."

Presented that way, 67 percent said no, they do not support it.

Now, it is possible that the negotiation that would follow passage of the Akaka bill might produce a result in which the state of Hawai'i and the federal government agree to exempt Hawaiians from some and certainly not all rules, regulations or taxes. But that is surely not what the Akaka bill says.

What might be considered shocking is that the poll found 32 percent of the respondents who said they were, indeed, ready to see Hawaiians exempt from all laws, regulations and taxes applicable to the rest of us.

So, what about the OHA poll?

The survey, conducted by Ward Research of Honolulu (who also does polling for The Advertiser) reached 401 people statewide, a typical sample size.

The first question sets up the idea that Hawaiians are indigenous people, much like American Indians and Alaskan Natives, who have been recognized by Congress. Asked whether Native Hawaiians should receive federal recognition, a whopping 84 percent said yes.

But of course, that's just the beginning of the process.

The OHA survey then notes that the Akaka bill will provide federal recognition for Hawaiians and will set in motion a process for Native Hawaiians to form a governing entity "similar to the governing entities indigenous groups now have within every state."

Should Hawaiians "have a right to self-governance similar to the way other indigenous groups now do?" the survey asks.

Fully 65 percent said yes. Why shouldn't Hawaiians get what other folks, similarly situated, get?

But what about race? The OHA survey continues: "Do you believe that Native Hawaiians should not be given federal recognition because of race?"

Only around 10 percent agreed that federal recognition should be withheld because of race.

The last question revolves around the idea that the Akaka bill might help programs ranging from Kamehameha Schools through Hawaiian Homelands survive legal challenge.

"Do you believe that Native Hawaiian institutions and programs should continue?"

Put that way, an overwhelming 86 percent said yes. And why not?

Finally, after pointing out that this is something other indigenous groups get, that some people want to deny it on the basis of race, and that it might help protect a variety of Hawaiian programs, the survey asks:

"Which best describes your position: support Akaka, do NOT support Akaka or don't know."

A full 68 percent support it, asked in this context.

Now, it may be almost impossible to develop a truly neutral question on the Akaka bill.

Yes, there is a lot of confusion out there. So groups who want to test public opinion have a natural desire to educate people about the topic, before asking their opinion.

But in that process of "education," the pollsters (or rather, their clients) either subtly or overtly wish to steer thinking in the direction that best suits their purposes.

Polling is an entirely valid method of sampling public opinion. The science behind it is legit. But it all comes down to the kind of questions one asks.

With a topic as complicated, poorly understood and controversial as the Akaka bill, it's no wonder we still have no clear measurement of how the people of Hawai'i feel.

Reach Jerry Burris at jburris@honoluluadvertiser.com.