HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An election for Native Hawaiians has been canceled, officials from Na'i Aupuni announced in a news conference Tuesday.
Native Hawaiians were voting to elect delegates for a convention, or 'aha, next year that would establish a framework for self-governance.
Kuhio Asam, president of Na'i Aupuni, said the most effective decision would be to terminate the process because of all the delays caused by ongoing litigation.
The election cancelation comes amid a U.S. Supreme Court injunction to temporarily block the counting of votes. While voting was supposed to end Nov. 30, officials later announced that the deadline would be extended to Dec. 21.
However, Na'i Aupuni leaders at Tuesday's press conference said Election-America has been informed to stop the receipt of ballots, to seal the ones that have already been received, and to prevent anyone from counting the votes.
"Our goal has always been to create a path so that Hawaiians can gather and have a serious and much-needed discussion about self-governance," 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."
As part of the announcement, officials said Na'i Aupuni will still go forward with a four-week-long 'aha in February. All 196 candidates will be offered seats as delegates in the 'aha to learn about, discuss and ultimately reach a consensus on a process to achieve self-governance. The deadline to participate in the 'aha is Dec. 22, 2015.
"This is the best, we believe, possible reaction to really changing circumstances that we partially anticipated so this is our strategy to honor our commitment to get people together to talk about self-determination and self-government," said Asam.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to rule whether the election was constitutional. Instead, Na'i Aupuni election officials will now file a motion to dismiss the case.
At issue is a lawsuit that claimed Na'i Aupuni was a race-based election run by the state -- a distinction opponents say disqualifies it as unconstitutional.
While Na'i Aupuni is an independent organization, questions were raised about the list of Native Hawaiians officials used for its election registry -- which was paid for in-part by a state agency.
Na'i Aupuni officials say prior court rulings do not prevent them from still gathering for its 'aha.
"They will meet and organize a leadership structure and that leadership structure would then assist and support the delegates in attempting to form documents that would either describe a government or set a further path upon which Hawaiians might pursue a route to a nation," described Asam.
Opponents who filed suit to stop the election and successfully petitioned for an injunction on counting the ballots called their efforts a victory.
"Clearly our lawsuit has brought an end to a discriminatory election," said Keli'i Akina, the president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
"They're undercutting their own semblance of a democratic process by eliminating the election they are simply saying to their voters, they don't matter.
They're saying the voice of the Native Hawaiians don't matter by going forward with this convention anyway," said Akina.
Keoni Kuoha, a Na'i Aupuni Oahu delegate candidate, disagrees.
"This turn of events may actually mean that the voices are more representative of our community and the conversations can represent a wider spectrum of perspectives from our people," Kuoha said.
From the very beginning many have asked: if this convention happens and delegates decide on a framework for Native Hawaiian self-determination -- how official will it be?
What recognition will it receive?
Now, experts say an already very complicated process has only grown more challenging.
Rather than wait for a Supreme Court ruling on constitutionality, political analysts say Na'i Aupuni's decision to cancel its election but still hold a convention raises even more questions about the legitimacy of whatever they decide.
"If they did wait, they would reserve the democratic legitimacy that would come from a real election like they planned. On the other hand, it looks like they've moved to a more pragmatic solution which is that they want to have something tangible to present they want to have something to present to the community and by having all the delegates sit at least they'll be able to produce something in a timely fashion," explained Colin Moore, a Political Science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Delegate candidates agree there has always been uncertainty about what the 'aha would accomplish, but say what's important is that the discussion is taking place.
"At this point we're dealing with symbolisms, and presumptions of law and ideas -- and until we have something solid in front of us as a people to say yeah, that's where we want to go or no we don't want to do that until we vote as a people at least a majority of our people vote -- it really is just speculation and that's what it's been up to this point," said Kuoha.
Some cite President Obama's dwindling time left in office as a likely factor in the decision to move forward with an attempt at self-governance.
"Clearly they're very conscious of the fact that we have a president now who is likely to be the most friendly president we'll ever have to the Native Hawaiian movement and they want to present something to the Department of the Interior under his watch. The next president is likely to be either not as interested, not as knowledgeable or not as favorable to Native Hawaiian interests," Moore said.
Participants say Native Hawaiians have a right to self-determination and while the process may be flawed -- engaging the community is a must.
"I do believe that forming a government at this point is in the best interest of Native Hawaiians and at that point the government can decide what the next steps are given the feedback that our people put into the process," said Kuoha.
The 'aha is scheduled for February 1, 2016 and will be held somewhere in Kailua.