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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Hawai'i still last in voter turnout

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

A national spotlight on Hawai'i as a potential political battleground in the 2004 presidential election helped boost voter turnout in the Islands, but the state still finished last in the nation, according to Census Bureau figures released today.

Only half of those eligible to vote in Hawai'i cast ballots in November, the census data shows, compared with 64 percent nationally.

Hawai'i has been in the election turnout cellar for the past three presidential campaigns. In 2000, only 44 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

What's frightening about 2004, said filmmaker and former political reporter Tom Coffman, is that without the last-minute presidential campaign furor, it might have been even worse. When a political poll suggested that President Bush, a Republican, had a shot at winning the traditionally Democratic state, national news organizations focused on last-minute visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and the daughter of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.

"It should have been a good year. There were very big and very organized registration drives by both sides. I had a sense that there was very high interest, particularly in the presidential election, and my seat-of-the-pants sense is that interest grew after that poll came out," Coffman said.

State elections chief Dwayne Yoshina said low voter turnout "is a national phenomenon. Participation in the election process has gone down."

Yoshina said he believes it's a societal issue. Kids aren't taught about their responsibility to vote, parents may not be emphasizing it, and the culture of America doesn't push it, he said.

"We need education, candidates, parties, and society in general all pulling together to say to people: Participation in the electoral process is something that has to be done."

Professional pollster Rebecca Ward said it's hard to find out why people don't vote, in part because they may not tell the truth when asked.

"People lie and inflate," she said.

When pollsters ask people if they intend to vote or actually did vote, they say they did in much higher percentages than the actual voting counts show, and it's not clear they're telling the truth when they explain why they didn't vote.

The Census Bureau questioned nonvoters nationally about why they didn't go to the polls, and 20 percent said they were either too busy or had a schedule conflict; 15 percent cited illness or disability; 11 percent said they just weren't interested; and 10 percent said they didn't like the candidates or the campaign issues.

University of Hawai'i political scientist Neal Milner said one of those reasons makes sense to him — that people aren't going to the polls simply because they're not very interested, and that's because the big races in Hawai'i aren't very exciting.

"The most important factor for Hawai'i is the lack of significant political battles that will bring people to the polls. This is still a one-party state," he said. "My sense is that a U.S. Senate race that mattered would make a difference. That would raise the visibility of the election."

Both U.S. Sens. Dan Inouye and Daniel Akaka are Democrats, and both have won their elections by wide margins.

But the Republicans have the governorship, and there is some indication the Democrats are weaker than they were a decade or two ago, so things could change, he said.

"The fact that a Democratic candidate for governor hasn't emerged yet is an indication of how screwed up they are," Milner said.

Another issue some people bring up as a possible problem is voter registration.

Yoshina said he has been an advocate of letting last-minute voters register at the polling place on election day if they have adequate identification. But other than that, registration has been eased considerably.

He cited measures to make registration more accessible, including mail-in registration and open absentee voting. The state also took steps last year to make voting easier for the disabled and people who may not be proficient in English.

Milner said registration is not the issue.

"A part of this story to me is that there's something subtle going on that keeps people from the polls, and it's certainly not registration procedures. The interesting thing to me is that we really don't understand why Hawai'i turnout is so low," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.