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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Outreach may help turnout

 •  Special report: The Vanishing Voter

This is the fourth of an occasional series of stories exploring Hawai'i's poor voter turnout and solutions for change.

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

A 71-year-old immigrant from China remembers what it was like to vote in his country: ballots contained only one name per office.

Volunteers from the Chinese Community Action Network yesterday helped register voters in Chinatown, and provided assistance with absentee ballot requests. Many see such grassroots efforts as one way to fight poor turnouts.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

So voters ended up selecting a candidate who had been chosen by the Communist Party and whose victory was preordained.

The retired teacher, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Chen, emigrated from Guangzhou in 1990. He now lives in Chinatown with his daughter and her family. He became a U.S. citizen in 1996 and immediately registered to vote.

This month, he happily picked up his absentee voter mail-in form at a booth in the open market at King and Kekaulike streets. When his ballot comes in the mail, it will have the translation provided by the Chinese Community Action Coalition. And he'll be able to decide on his votes in the comfort of his home, calling on family members for help if necessary.

"It is a freedom that is given to you, being a citizen, and it is your right and part of what makes America free," he said in Cantonese, translated by Chinese Community Action Coalition official Wing Tek Lum.

Chen is one of several hundred Chinese immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan whom the coalition helps each election cycle in registering to vote and in understanding the procedures. They come from countries "that are not noted for democracy and voting," Lum said.

"We try to tell them, 'You worked so hard to pass the (citizenship) test, and now one of your rights is you can vote,' " Lum said.

Most of these new voters take absentee ballots, which they can study at home. And as an indication that it's working, many who registered early on have returned in subsequent elections to pick up new absentee voting forms.

How to register to vote

To register to vote, you need to fill out and send in a voter registration affidavit.

You will find one in any Verizon phone book, and on O'ahu in the 2002 Paradise Pages. Just tear it out or make a copy.

Forms are kept at all City or County Clerk's offices, U.S. Post Offices, public libraries and many state offices. There's a copy in the State of Hawai'i tax booklet. You also can register when you apply for or renew your driver's license. The form can be downloaded from the State Office of Elections Web page.

Deadlines for registering to vote in the 2002 elections are Aug. 22 for the primary election and Oct. 7 for the general election.

"We had our first weekend July 6, and we had 42 new registrations and 88 who picked up absentee forms," Lum said.

"Once they have found out how to do it, they come back every year for absentee ballots. The Chinese immigrants we are focusing on, they're showing the pride in voting," he said.

Hawai'i in 2000 had the lowest voter turnout in the nation — a dismal showing in a state that during the 1960s had some of the country's highest turnouts. Some observers argue that getting people involved again requires grassroots organizing, like that done by the Chinese Community Action Coalition and other groups statewide.

Former Big Island mayor and judge Shunichi Kimura said such a community effort is critical to restoring strong voter turnout — and may actually be more important than voter education driven by a state bureaucracy.

"I think it's just a matter of leaders of the community organizing churches, neighborhood groups. You need to start from that basis, not from the top down," Kimura said.

It may be particularly important because state and county elections offices don't have the money to educate voters properly.

The state Office of Elections, trying to stem the decline of voting in Hawai'i, asked the Legislature for $200,000 last year. That's about 29 cents per Election 2000 registered voter — not even enough for a first-class stamp to each voter. The Legislature that year appropriated nothing.

This year, the office asked for $100,000. The Legislature gave it $25,000 — less than four cents a voter. The office is using that money, and cobbling together money from other areas, like salary money saved from leaving positions vacant.

Volunteers with the Chinese Community Action Coalition work hard to help immigrants of Chinese ancestry see citizenship in the United States as a status that comes with an obligation to participate in democracy.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

"That happens again and again. The elections office is a stepchild of government," said Bill Kimberling, of the Federal Election Commission's Office of Election Administration.

"Voter information is essential. People need to know where and how to register. They need to know where the polling place is, and they need to see the ballot in advance if possible," he said.

State elections administrator Dwayne Yoshina said voter education money was cut in the early 1990s and has not been restored.

"We have kind of neglected that area, but we're doing the best that we can," he said.

Kimberling said there is evidence that a simple technique — mailing out a facsimile ballot to voters so they can decide on choices ahead of time, mark the ballot at their leisure, and bring it into the voting booth — can increase participation.

"We would like to send out a voter pamphlet, with a profile of the candidates, a digest of the (state constitution and county charter) amendments, and a facsimile ballot. It would explain to people how to vote properly," Yoshina said.

Each legislative district and island would need a different pamphlet, because candidates and local issues are different.

"Every legislative session we've proposed a voter pamphlet, but it never comes out. It's big bucks. My off-the-top-of-my-head estimate is about $250,000 for production and mailing," he said.

Still less than a dollar a voter.

Important dates

Aug. 22: Last day to register to vote for the Primary Election

Sept. 9: Walk-in absentee polling places open for Primary Election. They close Sept. 19.

Sept. 13: Last day to request absentee mail-in ballots for Primary Election

Sept. 21: Primary Election

Oct. 7: Last day to register to vote for General Election

Oct. 22: Walk-in absentee polling place open for General Election. They close Nov. 2.

Oct. 29: Last day to request absentee mail-in ballots for General Election

Nov. 5: General Election

For special assistance or more information call the state Office of Elections at (808) 453-VOTE (8683).

Yoshina said his staff works closely with the county clerks, and often helps prepare voter materials.

Kimberling said budget difficulties are a nationwide issue for elections officers. However, he said there have been no good studies on how much money elections offices around the country have available for educating voters. Largely, that's because there is no nationwide model for how elections are handled. In some states, there are city elections agencies, some are handled by county clerks, and election spending is not easily distinguished from budgeting for other duties of those offices.

Lum said that his organization's efforts help make Chinese immigrants more comfortable with the technical aspects of voting.

Hawai'i's elections are run by the state Office of Elections, the Honolulu City Clerk and the offices of the county clerks of Hawai'i, Kaua'i and Maui. If anything, their job should be to explain the process — to tell people how to vote — and not to tell them whether to vote, said Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a national non-profit organization.

Lewis said it is an election official's job to make sure it's easy to register and that voting systems minimize confusion, not to try directly to affect turnout.

"You really don't want an elections office to do that. It inevitably has political impact. In the '70s or '80s, programs to increase the youth vote would have favored Democrats. Today, they would favor Republicans. We can either be referees in the system or participants, but not both," Lewis said.

"Turnout has historically been the province of the candidate organizations, then the political parties. But the truth is, both have gotten so weak that they don't do a very good job any more. Then there are the presumed non-partisans like the League of Women Voters and civic groups. And finally you have special interests, like labor, right to life, the Sierra Club — who want to get out the voters who will support the candidates of their choosing," Lewis said.

The efforts of all these organizations have not kept up with population growth, leading to the decline in voter participation. And there's still the issue of whether voters are accomplishing in the curtained voting stall what they intend to accomplish.

"What we discovered in Election 2000 is that even voters who do come to the polls don't always know what they're supposed to do," Lewis said.