By David Shapiro
Hawai'i's 2002 election is shaping up as the year of The Great Voter Cop-Out.
A staggering 59 percent of registered voters failed to cast ballots in the Sept. 21 primary election. Whether that number improves significantly in the general election on Nov. 5 could be the most important factor in deciding the outcome.
The woeful turnout persists despite a full slate of important and lively races that will shape Hawai'i for the rest of the decade. Non-voters are unmoved by the embarrassment of Hawai'i's dismal 44 percent participation in the 2000 presidential election, the worst in the nation.
Most non-voters are just plain apathetic; they don't think government is about them and won't make time in their busy lives to keep up with public affairs and vote. The poor babies find ballots too confusing.
A growing minority of non-voters are the opposite quite interested in public affairs and well-informed. They withhold their votes to protest corruption, negative campaigning and candidates they find unappealing.
Either way, it's a cop-out. Important choices will be made whether they vote or not. Their avoidance of responsibility and commitment only surrenders to others the right to choose for them.
Certainly, the right to vote includes the right not to vote. But let's follow the thinking of the alienated non-voter to its logical conclusion. If everybody decided to show outrage by refusing to vote, would government take it as a cue to become more responsive?
Hardly. Low voter turnout only makes it easier for self-serving candidates and the special interests that back them to maintain control. The only cure for alienation is for the individual voter to take responsibility for making good choices.
The biggest cop-out is the wail of non-voters that there's no difference between candidates. The last presidential election showed us the folly of this thinking.
Al Gore didn't lose the election because of Florida. He lost because millions of liberals saw no difference between Gore and George W. Bush. They either didn't vote or fed wasted votes to Ralph Nader's ego, tipping the results Bush's way in several states.
Well, look at those liberals now. They're arm-in-arm with Gore in protests against Bush's preparations to go to war with Iraq. If there's a war, they have nobody to blame but themselves for failing to assert their interests at the ballot box.
In Hawai'i's election for governor this year, we hear similar complaints that there's no real difference between Mazie Hirono and Linda Lingle.
That's silly talk. Hirono and Lingle bring different philosophies, priorities and competencies to the table. They'll bring different types of people into government, and Hawai'i will be a quite different place at the end of the decade depending on who wins.
Whether or not either is an ideal candidate, we all have a stake in assessing our comfort with the status quo, deciding which of them best represents our hopes for the future and getting in on the choice.
Hawai'i's poor voter participation reflects a failure to teach this most basic act of citizenship in our homes and in our schools over the last generation. It reflects a public cynicism for which the news media must take a share of responsibility.
Fortunately, there's hope for the future. Innovative programs like Kids Voting Hawai'i are engaging our children in the electoral process early and have a real chance of making them voters for life.
In the meantime, their parents, older siblings, aunties and uncles should watch what the kids are doing and take a hint.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.