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Issues within the Office of Hawaiian Affairs

By: Sophia Compton

13 November 2020

Twelve thousand ballots remained that awaited counting post-election according to the Hawaii Office of Elections. 


Jacqui Burke, a candidate for the at-large seat who ran and lost in the primaries, describes this issue. “The entire voting system suppresses the Hawaiian vote. In the time now where we talk about voter suppression and gerrymandering and voter participation, this falls right into voter suppression.” 


Burke also pointed out that the trustees’ last names usually start with A, because people vote for the name at the top of the ballot.

“When people don’t know who they are voting, they just pick the first letter on the list,” he said.


Reservation of votes for Native Hawaiʻians solely is a popular, controversial topic with many claiming people do not understand what OHA is, which is the reason for the voters blank ballots submissions.


Each year, the amount of blank ballots submitted outweighs the ballots that have been filled and submitted for OHA. 


According to the Office of Elections, only 286,041 or 38.6% of Hawaiian residents voted in 2018. Of those ballots, 49.6% were left blank for the OHA Trustee At-large seat. 


Keli’i Akina was elected trustee-at-large in 2016. Akina won in the primaries and was running against Keoni Souza for the at-large position. 


During his first term, Akina successfully conducted an independent audit that allegedly found indicators of fraud within the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In this study, Akina found that 85% of cases within OHA were not following mandated requirements. 


This audit is now a blueprint for many reforms. Akina is attempting to restore the effectiveness and credibility of OHA. 


Should Akina win a second term, he is committed to fulfilling a three-part plan which includes protecting the trust through audits and firm policies, growing the trust by developing valuable income properties, and using the trust for the real needs of Hawaiians such as housing and jobs.


“In 2016, OHA was at an all-time low for its reputation. There were strong allegations of fraud, waste and abuse coming from OHA beneficiaries and public investigators,” Akina said.  “It was my purpose in 2016 to bring reforms to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.”


Voter turnout on O'ahu also outnumbers the total number of registered voters on other islands by more than two to one. Due to this, Oahu’s residents frequently end up choosing the trustees representing other islands, which undermines the ability of different island residents to choose their own OHA representatives. 


Incumbent Keli’i Akina won the Office of Hawaiian Affair At-lar seat. (Courtesy of Keli‘i Akina)


The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been steeped in controversy following discrepancies over voter attendance and fraud. The election was Nov. 3.


Luana Alapa beat incumbent Collette Machado who has served on the board for more than two decades to represent Lanai and Molokai. Incumbent Keli’i Akina is leading against Keoni Souza to keep the at-large seat, with Akina holding 34.2% of the vote and Souza at 33.5%.

Twelve thousand ballots remained that awaited counting post-election, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections. 


The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, also known as OHA, manages an estimated $600 million trust fund that supports grants and scholarships specifically for Native Hawaiians. There are nine trustees total: consisting of four at-large members and one representing each of the districts of Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i, O‘ahu, and Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau.

In 2000, after complaints that OHA discriminated against people by only allowing Native Hawaiians to vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the state could not restrict eligibility to vote in elections to Native Hawaiian descent. Meaning anyone in Hawai’i can vote on Native Hawaiian issues, even if they are not Native Hawaiian.


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