OHA Elections

OHA Elections: the Process and Its Importance

By Letani Peltier, Post-J.D. Legal Fellow

This fall, the people of Hawaiʻi will have the opportunity to vote for several Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Board of Trustees positions. Like any government agency, OHA has its shortcomings. But it is a uniquely Hawaiian institution, a product of the hard work of both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians during the 1978 Constitutional Convention that stands poised to advocate for Native Hawaiians in a way that few other agencies can. Thus, it is our responsibility to protect this gift from our kupuna—to support it through its struggles and to hold it accountable to the ʻāina and the lāhui. Participating in the OHA trustee elections is one way to do that.

What is OHA and what does OHA do?

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a highly autonomous government agency that came about as a result of the 1978 Constitutional Convention. Article XII, Section 5 of the Hawaiʻi State Constitution establishes the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and authorizes it to hold title to real and personal property in trust for Native Hawaiians. Article XII also establishes the Board of Trustees and authorizes them to manage and administer assets for Native Hawaiians, “including all income and proceeds from [the] pro rata portion of the [public land] trust.” The public land trust consists primarily of certain crown and government lands taken from the Hawaiian Kingdom as a result of annexation, “ceded” to the United States of America through the Joint Resolution of Annexation, and then granted to the State of Hawaiʻi pursuant to the Admission Act. Although article XII, Section 4 of the Hawaiʻi State Constitution mandates that these lands are to be held by the State of Hawaiʻi as a public trust “for native Hawaiians and the general public,” the state may sell these lands or lease it to private businesses.

The responsibilities and authority of OHA and the Board of Trustees are further detailed in chapter 10 of the Hawaii Revised Statues (HRS). Importantly, HRS §10-13.5 sets the pro rata portion of the public land trust to be 20% of all funds derived from the public land trust. However, OHA currently only receives an annual amount of $15.1 million a year. Arguably, this amount is significantly less than 20% of all funds derived from the public land trust.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs continues to fight for a fare share of the public land trust revenues so that it may better serve its purpose of bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians. Towards this end, OHA provides scholarships to students, loans to businesses and individuals, and grants to various community organizations that aid Hawaiians. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs also advocates for Native Hawaiians at the legislature and works to ensure that local, state, and federal agencies comply with laws protecting Native Hawaiian interests (and in doing so, has sued the State of Hawaiʻi on numerous occasions).

The Board of Trustees plays an important role by managing the agency’s trust, setting policy for OHA, and appointing the Chief Executive Officer (Ka Pouhana), who oversees a staff of about 170 Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. The Board of Trustees is comprised of nine members who are elected in statewide nonpartisan elections to serve four-year terms. Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, and Hawaiʻi Island are each represented by a trustee. Additionally, four trustees serve at-large.

How do OHA elections work?

This coming election, there are three OHA trustee contests:  the Oʻahu resident seat, the Maui resident seat, and the at-large seats (for the at-large contest, the top three candidates will fill three at-large positions). It is worth noting that the current Oʻahu trustee is not running for re-election and there are seven candidates in that open race. The current Maui trustee is running for re-election against one other candidate. The three at-large incumbents whose seats are up are running for re-election against twelve other candidates.

There are two important yet counterintuitive characteristics of OHA elections. First, you may vote for an island resident seat regardless of whether you are a resident of that island. In other words, an Oʻahu resident may vote for both the Oʻahu resident seat and also the Maui resident seat. Second, non-Hawaiians may vote in OHA elections (and run for a position on the Board of Trustees) because of the Rice v. Cayetano case that was decided in 2000.  

In the August 11 primary election, Hawaiʻi voters narrowed down the field of candidates running for the Oʻahu resident contest and the at-large contest. Because there are only two candidates for the Maui resident seat, that race bypassed the primary election and will go straight to the general election. In the general election, Hawaiʻi voters will choose between Kalei Akaka and Esther Kiaʻaina for the Oʻahu resident contest and Keʻeaumoku Kapu and Carmen Hulu Lindsey for the Maui resident contest. For the at-large contest, the general election ballot will list six candidates – Lei Ahu Isa, William Aila, Rowena Akana, Faye Hanohano, Brendon Kaleiʻaina Lee, and John Waiheʻe. The three candidates who receive the most votes will fill the at-large seats.

The general election is November 6. The deadline to register to vote in the general election is October 9. You can register to vote, or update your voting information, online at https://olvr.hawaii.gov. If you miss that deadline, you can still register to vote in person at Early Walk In Voting locations from October 23 to November 3. 

Why You Should Vote

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs and its trustees frequently make the headlines, and often not in a good way. But beyond the drama and controversy is an organization that is continuing the work of our ancestors and our Kūpuna to move the lāhui forward in the face of adversity. To the extent that you do not agree with the policies or positions that OHA has adopted, then consider this election an opportunity to usher in change. To the extent that you are unfamiliar with OHA, its trustees, or the 2018 candidates, educate yourselves about them.

Finally, to the non-Hawaiians who feel uncomfortable voting in elections that were intended for Hawaiians only:  Hawaiian values are not exclusively held by Hawaiians alone. Regardless of where our ancestors came from, we all want a responsive government that takes care of the land and its people.  Become educated about the issues; engage in dialogue with the Hawaiian community; ask your Hawaiian friends for their opinions on who to vote for. Help us to put mana into this Hawaiian institution so that we may correct past injustices, protect our natural and cultural resources, and uplift all of the people of Hawaiʻi.