HONOLULU (AP) — A unique election considered a major step toward self-governance for Native Hawaiians was terminated Tuesday because of litigation challenging the process that could take years to resolve.
Still, organizers said they plan to press ahead with a convention next year aimed at continuing their cause.
Native Hawaiians were voting to elect 40 delegates who would meet at the convention to come up with a proposed self-governance document.
However, a group of Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians sued to block the election, arguing Hawaii residents who have no Native Hawaiian ancestry were being excluded from it in violation of their constitutional rights.
The challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently granted an injunction to stop the counting of ballots until a lower court ruled on an appeal. In response, election organizers extended voting by three weeks and asked the lower court to expedite its decision.
But on Tuesday, organizers announced they would instead abandon the election and offer all 196 candidates seats as delegates for the convention, called aha in Hawaiian, which is scheduled to begin in February and last four weeks.
It's unclear how the larger number of delegates will affect the process, but it's always been uncertain what the convention will be able to achieve.
What happens at the convention will be up to the delegates, but they're expected to organize a leadership structure and "attempt to form documents that would describe a government or set a further path upon which Hawaiians might pursue en route to a nation," said Kuhio Asam, president of Nai Aupuni, an organization created to guide the election process.
Decisions about future voting based on what's decided at the convention will be made when the time comes, Asam said.
"We anticipated that the path would have twists and turns and even some significant obstacles, but we are committed to getting to the aha, where this long-overdue discussion can take place," he said.
The extended voting was to end Dec. 21, but ballots will no longer be received. Votes already cast will be sealed and won't be counted, Asam said.
"Clearly our lawsuit ... has brought an end to a discriminatory election," said Kelii Akina, a plaintiff in the case. "Now, in a desperate move to bypass their failed election and ignore their voter base, Nai Aupuni is undercutting its own efforts to even look like a democratic process."
Native Hawaiians have long sought self-determination, but opinions about what that would look like vary — from federal recognition, to restoring the overthrown Hawaiian kingdom to dual citizenship.
Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka spent about a dozen years trying to pass a bill that would give Native Hawaiians the same rights extended to many Native Americans and Alaska Natives, such as land and cultural rights.
When it became clear that wouldn't happen, the state passed a law in 2011 recognizing Hawaiians as the first people of Hawaii and laying the foundation for Native Hawaiians to establish their own government.
Then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed a commission to produce a roll of qualified Native Hawaiians interested in participating in such a government.
The commission's chairman, former Gov. John Waihee, said he's still processing Nai Aupuni's announcement.
"At least the positive thing is, it looks like we're going to have a convention," he said.
State Rep. Kaniela Ing, a delegate candidate, said he's not sure he'll accept a seat at the convention.
"If we had known that signing up was a free pass to the table rather than a name on a ballot, the outcome and the process itself would have been completely different," he said.
Suddenly taking away the opportunity to vote for delegates makes a mockery of any effort toward self-governance, said Native Hawaiian community advocate Trisha Keahaulani Watson-Sproat, who has been a vocal critic of Nai Aupuni.
"I don't know how anybody is supposed to take any of this seriously at this point," she said. "I mean, it has the integrity of a Costco membership at this point."