Learning From Hawaiʻi’s Electoral Past

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Photo: Hālau Kū Mana
Hālau Kū Mana senior Hema Watson authored both the He Leo Hou and Ka Leo o nā ʻŌpio columns this month. – Photo: Courtesy

By Hema Watson, Grade 12 Hālau Kū Mana Public Charter School

Every election season, there are conversations about Native Hawaiians’ power in electoral politics. Whether it’s the number of Native Hawaiians running for elected office or the power of the Hawaiian vote at the polls, these conversations continue to come up year after year.

With the primary election ballots arriving in our mailboxes, I wanted to share a discussion that was had on this topic in this same publication over 40 years ago.

In 1981, former House Minority Leader and OHA Trustee Kinaʻu Boyd Kamaliʻi penned an article in OHA’s Ka Wai Ola newspaper titled, “The Significance of the Hawaiian Vote.”

A screenshot of the 1981 Ka Wai Ola article by Kinaʻu Kamaliʻi
A screenshot of the 1981 Ka Wai Ola article by Kinaʻu Kamaliʻi titled “The Significance of the Hawaiian Vote.” – Photo: OHA

In the article, Kamaliʻi reflected on Hawaiʻi’s politics and Native Hawaiians’ influence in government at the time. She also highlighted that, for the first time since the territorial period, Native Hawaiians dominated political leadership in Hawaiʻi.

“Congressman Daniel Akaka, State Senate President Richard Wong, Senate Minority Leader Andy Anderson, Speaker of the House Henry Peters, House Minority Leader Kinaʻu Boyd Kamaliʻi, State Supreme Court Chief Justice William Richardson, United States District Judges Samuel King and Walter Heen are all Hawaiians. And all have assumed the positions in the last decade,” Kamaliʻi wrote.

Kamaliʻi wrote that Native Hawaiian voters “represented a crucial swing vote that could have been the margin for winning or losing an election.” She said that “if motivated and mobilized…Hawaiians could decide major elections.”

The Landscape Today

As we fast forward to Hawaiʻi’s political landscape today, Native Hawaiians only make up 11 of the 76 members of the state legislature and one-fourth of Hawaiʻi’s Congressional Delegation. There is only one Native Hawaiian serving as a federal judge, with none serving on the Hawaiʻi State Supreme Court.

While there is evident work that needs to happen at the state and federal levels to increase Native Hawaiian representation, a significant movement is being made on the various county councils.

At the Honolulu City Council, the top three leadership positions are held by Native Hawaiians – Council Chair Tommy Waters, Council Vice-Chair Esther Kiaʻāina, and Council Floor Leader Andria Tupola. In addition to Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi, Native Hawaiians occupy four of the nine council positions.

On Kauaʻi, Councilmember Mason Chock serves as vice-chair of the Kauaʻi County Council.

On Maui, Natives Hawaiians hold two of the top three leadership positions. Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez serves as the Vice-Chair of the Council and Chair of the powerful Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee. Councilmember Tasha Kama serves as presiding officer pro tempore.

On Hawaiʻi Island, Councilmember Maile David serves as the council chairperson for the Hawaiʻi Island council.

With significant issues such as TMT, land rights, water rights, and more, the frustration of our Native Hawaiian communities needs to be expressed at the polls. The narrative of Native Hawaiians not being an organized voting bloc must end.

As a lāhui, we have another opportunity to make our voices heard at the polls this year. Let’s make this one count!


Ka Leo O Nā ʻŌpio (KONO) is a collaboration of Native Hawaiian organizations and individuals dedicated to Native Hawaiian youth civic engagement. To learn more about us, visit our website at www.kaleoonaopio.org or follow us on social media @opiopowered.