Hawaiian Affairs trustees may face tougher path to election
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
Candidates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees would face a tougher road to victory under a bill moving through the state Legislature this session.
Senate Bill 2378 would require OHA board candidates in single-seat elections to take part in a run-off election on primary election day and, unless a first-place finisher receives 50 percent of the vote, would have the two top finishers face off on general election day.
Under existing law, OHA candidates need only take part in one winner-take-all election on general election day.
The bill would also affect OHA's at-large elections where there are three seats up for grabs. The top six candidates would advance from the primary day election to the general unless there are only three candidates at the outset.
Supporters of the bill say the current process makes it too easy for incumbents and others with names familiar to the public. The proposed change would level the playing field for lesser-known candidates, they argue.
OHA administration, while not taking any official position on the bill, raised concerns about the measure and suggested lawmakers consider the cost of a second round of elections.
A version of the bill has already passed the state Senate and the House is poised to take a final vote on Tuesday.
If it passes, the final language of the bill would be hashed out by leaders from both houses during conference committee meetings later this month.
State Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kāne'ohe, Kahuku), an OHA trustee from 1990 to 2002 and a former chairman of the board, introduced the bill.
Hee said incumbents and others with name recognition inherently hold an advantage in elections where there is a large field of candidates.
In such cases, the top vote-getter often does not get 50 percent of the votes, he said. A second, run-off election between the top two vote-getters would assure the winner has the support of a majority of the voters, he said.
"This will level the playing field for people who may wish to run who may not have name recognition, who may not have the economic wherewithal, and who are willing to go door-to-door and are full of energy," Hee said.
"Instead of running against 15 challengers, the incumbent would have to run against only one challenger in November," he said.
Alan Murakami, an attorney who has represented Native Hawaiian interests, said he testified for the bill largely because it would bring OHA elections more in line with other elected offices in the state. Only OHA elections are determined entirely in a single election day, he said.
"Why is it the only election where candidates are not allowed to have a run-off?" Murakami said. "Is it fair? That's the question. Every other election is a run-off."
Of the nine current OHA board members, two were elected with fewer than 50 percent of votes cast.
At-Large Trustee Haunani Apoliona won with 46.3 percent from a field of four candidates in 2008. Second-place finisher Collin Kippen received 24.4 percent.
O'ahu Trustee Walter Heen won with 30.6 percent from a field of seven candidates in 2006, ousting incumbent Dante Carpenter who finished second with 26 percent.
The change would also affect OHA's three-seat at-large election that takes place every four years. In 2006, the change would have meant that winners Rowena Akana, John Waihe'e IV and Oswald Stender would have had to face Manu Boyd, Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele and Whitney Anderson, who finished fourth to sixth in that election, in a second round.
The OHA administration submitted testimony neither supporting nor opposing the bill. But the testimony raised a number of questions on the bill and asked lawmakers to "take into account the financial and other costs to the state and to the candidates."
It suggested a study be conducted to look further into the plan.
Apoliona, OHA's chairwoman, said she has the same concerns about the bill that were raised in OHA's testimony. "There are legitimate issues at play here," she said.
Heen, the board's vice chairman, said he has no personal objections to the bill, "but I think it's unnecessary and going to cost people more money."
He also doesn't think the change would make it more difficult for incumbents to win re-election. "Incumbents always have the edge no matter what kind of election you have," he said.
All OHA seats are decided by all voters in the state, including those seats assigned to specific islands. The seats carry no term limits, so trustees can continue to run for re-election. Those provisions would not change under the bill.