Don’t Give up on OHA Elections – Why Everyone Should Vote!

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Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

It’s no secret that voter turnout in Hawaii ranks among the lowest in the nation, but the results of the August 11 primaries also reveal how few people in our state determine who gets elected to public office. The majority of Hawai‘i’s adults, nearly two-thirds of them, simply don’t participate in electing Hawai‘i’s governor, Congressional delegation or state legislators. And that’s not only bad for Democracy, it’s bad for the Hawaiian people.

When it comes to electing Trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, even fewer voters participate. According to the Office of Elections, only 286,041 individuals (38.6%) actually voted on August 11, out of 741,007 registered voters in the state. Out of those 286,041 ballots submitted, 41.3% were left blank in the race for the OHA Trustee Oahu seats, and 49.6% were left blank in the race for the OHA Trustee At-large seat.

A frequently given explanation for low participation in OHA elections is that, when sitting trustees run for re-election, they generally win due to name recognition. So, for those who want a change, why vote, or even, why run? For example, the three incumbents who ran in the recent OHA at-large primary won a commanding lead over their challengers despite the fact that they spent little to nothing on their campaigns.

I would like to suggest that current low voter participation in OHA races is not an insurmountable barrier to change if you see the glass as half full rather than half empty. Hundreds of thousands of voters already participate in each State election, so all they need to do is move their pencil over to the OHA ballot. And to do that, they simply need a compelling reason to vote OHA.

That’s exactly what happened when I ran for Trustee At-large in the 2016 general election. Whether they were voting for the incumbent or for me, voters chose to mark their OHA ballots in record numbers. 73.1% of all voters across the State who participated in that election marked their OHA ballot!

There is still time for that to happen in the next election, so voters should be encouraged to support candidates of their choice who offer a compelling reason to vote. And one of the most compelling reasons to vote OHA is that it is everyone’s kuleana to ensure the betterment of conditions of the Hawaiian people through housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. When Hawaiians go without, everyone suffers; when Hawaiians prosper, everyone prospers!

Even so, some non-Hawaiians feel it is not culturally respectful to vote in OHA elections. Let me share what I told Honolulu Magazine when they asked me about that in 2014:

“As a native Hawaiian, I believe it is important for all registered voters, regardless of race, to participate in the election of OHA Trustees. This is the way to be culturally respectful because it honors the Hawaiian Kingdom practice that citizenship was not based upon race… From the time of Kamehameha the First to Queen Lili‘uokalani, leaders of multiple ethnicities were appointed to manage the Kingdom’s land and assets for the benefit of all. Hawai‘i was the first place in what is now the United States where citizenship and voting were based upon “the content of one’s heart, not the color of one’s skin.”

So, as more Hawai‘i voters realize it is everyone’s kuleana to vote for OHA trustees, there will be more opportunity for Democracy and change.

E Hana Kākou/Let’s Work Together!

Trustee Akina welcomes your thoughts and comments at TrusteeAkina@oha.org.