Council Considers Voting Districts

Maui County Council discusses charter amendment that would establish single-member voting districts for council members. "Clearly, this needs to be decided by the voters."

Maui Weekly
July 22, 2010

The Maui County Council Committee of the Whole convened on Thursday, July 15, to consider a proposal that may change the face of politics for voters and candidates alike.

With four of their colleagues conspicuously absent, the remaining five council members met early Thursday morning to review a draft resolution for a proposed charter amendment that, if it had gone to and was approved by the full council next month, would have been a question placed on the 2010 General Election ballots this fall. Introduced by West Maui Councilmember Jo Anne Johnson in April, the proposed amendment seeks to establish nine equally sized voting districts and "replace at-large elections for Maui County Council Members with elections for members from each of the nine election districts, with the district boundaries to be determined by a County Reapportionment Commission according to established criteria." Simply stated, the proposed amendment called for a revised elections system in which only residents of a particular district would be allowed to vote for a council member from that same district.

After several hours of testimony and a spirited debate, the five-member committee unanimously decided to refer the proposal to the next Maui County Charter Commission, an independent body of members who, once appointed by the mayor, will meet to review charter amendments sometime next spring. Therefore, the proposal will not appear on ballots this fall.

Thursday's meeting brought a crowd of testifiers, including many who have continuously questioned the equity of the current system of "geographical representation," particularly for residents in less populated areas such as Moloka'i, Lana'i and Hana. Currently, residents cast votes for all nine council members, regardless of district—a process some believe is riddled with challenges for candidates and their constituents.

In their testimony before the committee, many suggested the current system does more harm than good, as certain districts with dense populations—Central Maui in particular—elect candidates from outlying districts, leaving little opportunity for lesser-known candidates.

Those who spoke in favor of replacing at-large elections for council members also contended the existing system tends to favor incumbents, "household names" or candidates who have more financial resources. Others argued the status quo invariably weakens the representation of particular groups, generating feelings of mistrust or disenfranchisement, not to mention, voter apathy, as those who do not understand how the system works may be likely to leave votes blank—or not vote at all. 

"This is not democracy, or truly representative government," said George Lavenson, a member of Maui Unite. "Only by a district choosing their own representatives can those representatives truly represent the particular needs and concerns of that district or area."

But many others testified in favor of keeping the current system intact. Jocelyn Perreira, executive director of the Wailuku Main Street Association, urged the council to reject the proposal. "Geographical representation is traditional and historical, dating back to the times of pre-contact ali'i chiefs… it is the Maui Nui way, respected for generations," she said. "The proposal may be popular, but if each island does not have equal representation, it could easily result in going to war over home rule issues."

Former Council Chairman Riki Hokama agreed. "Take a look at our historical background," he said. "Our forefathers decided geographical representation [was] just as fair as equal representation… we are a unique county, with different kinds of constituencies." Noting "horror stories" of small, single-member districts, he advised the council to take the proposal to the people of L?na'i and Moloka'i, "and see what it means for them to lose geographical representation." What we need to figure out, he said, "is how to be one multi-island county together and have a big-picture understanding that when we pass ordinances of countywide impact, that we have people who understand the various, unique parts of our county."

But according to a recent poll, a majority of registered voters believes the existing system is flawed. Last month, the nonpartisan West Maui Charter Working Group released the results of a poll conducted by Honolulu-based QMark Research, indicating 65 percent of voters countywide would support such an amendment to the Maui County Charter. 

In his testimony that morning, Gordon Cockett, a member of the working group, said, "It's common sense to vote for your own representative… I have no fancy words, no fancy thoughts—it's just common sense."

But not all of the council members were swayed by the results.

"I applaud the working group for its efforts," said Councilmember Wayne Nishiki, "but there are shortfalls in the way it was done." Suggesting the council refer the proposal to the Charter Commission, Nishiki called for a "more lively discussion" of the issue within the community, best accomplished if the commission makes recommendations to the electorate, he said. 

"We must respect those living in outlying areas," agreed Council Chairman Michael Molina. In order to ensure all residents are fully informed of the issue, "more information needs to be disseminated," he said.

Councilmember Johnson was resolute in her determination that the electorate should have the last word. "Clearly, this needs to be decided by the voters," she said. "I personally would like to see this be on the ballot… I feel that the community has waited long enough."

Ultimately, if the county adopts district voting, Johnson reasoned, "You're still going to assist people… no matter where they live in Maui County."

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