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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, August 2, 2004

Low poll turnout: Sign of decaying politics

Hawai'i finds itself once again cast in a negative light, this time in a study showing us to have had the lowest voter registration level in the country in the 2002 election.

There's confusion about these numbers. The Census Bureau says 425,000 Hawai'i residents are registered to vote out of 801,000 citizens eligible, a rate of 53.1 percent. But Rex Quidilla, voter services coordinator for the Office of Elections, says far more citizens are registered, 676,242 of them, which would boost the rate to around 84 percent.

That sounds improbably high, although the Census number of eligible citizens, 801,000, no doubt includes nonvoting military members.

Actual voter turnout (the percentage of those registered who actually went to the polls) was slightly below the national average in that year, even though we had a spirited gubernatorial race. According to the Census Bureau, 45.4 percent of Hawai'i's voting-age residents (18 and older) voted in that election, compared to 46.1 percent of the nation as a whole — but 48 percent by Quidilla's numbers.

No matter what numbers turn out to be just right, our voter participation is nothing to be proud of. Consider, if you will, that fully 96 percent of registered voters turned out in Hawai'i's 1964 election.

Explanations for this decline in participation vary. Some say it is simply a reflection of growing cynicism on the part of the public. Others point to growing alienation between average citizens and the political process. That is, people may still care, but they do not believe that their opinions matter, or that their votes are important.

While all this may be understandable, it leaves us with a core component of our democratic system left to rot through indifference or even hostility.

So what to do? In truth, it's neither difficult to register nor to vote here. Indeed, we'd argue that making it even easier to register in Hawai'i than it is might be nearing a point of diminishing returns, not to mention encouraging a greater number of relatively uninformed voters.

If the key is voter apathy, low turnouts will not be reversed until individuals are convinced they have a stake.

And given that George W. Bush is president today because of 537 disputed votes in Florida, we hope few citizens still think a single vote can't make a difference.