Poor voter turnout still the norm in Islands
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Johnny Brannon
It's been said again and again: Hawai'i's voter turnout is the lowest in the nation.
That may or may not be entirely true. But as the state prepares for the Sept. 23 primary election, nonvoters make up a growing chunk of the population.
Fewer than 4 out of every 10 registered voters turned out for the 2004 primary election, down from more than 6 out of 10 in the 1994 primary, state election records show.
And that's far fewer than in the early 1960s, when more than 9 out of 10 registered voters would go to the polls.
The number of people who voted in Hawai'i's 2004 general election actually was the highest in more than a decade, and the voter registration count also was much higher than 10 years before (see chart on Page A2). But the overall number of voting-age adults also increased — including those who didn't register or vote.
Bottom line: Many, many more people could vote in Hawai'i if they chose to.
There are many theories about why voter turnout is so low: Residents are apathetic, content, too busy, disinterested in public affairs, cynical about politicians and distracted by new technology and access to unprecedented amounts of entertainment.
Some eligible voters say they're just not interested.
"I guess I don't vote because in a way, I don't really see a point in it," said Jasmyn Kaiwi, 20, of Ha'iku, Maui. "All my teachers, and the commercials and stuff, they always say, 'Every vote counts,' but I don't see one vote making a big difference. And I don't keep up with political things. That's not really my thing."
But others say they're turned off by the money and special interests that can influence politics.
"I feel like the small guy isn't being represented in the current system, because you can contribute so much money to a certain candidate, and then they have a favor that they owe you now," said Kalihi resident Keoki Downes, 22. "I think if it was really more community-based, more people would vote, and they would feel like their vote was making a difference."
Downes said he's not sure whether he will vote this year but would be inclined to support a candidate who made a genuine effort to meet voters and listen.
"I would probably vote for whoever comes by and knocks on my door and introduces (himself) and says, 'I'm running in your area. What are your concerns?' " Downes said. "I would be totally for voting for that person just because they came to see what I thought. The sign-waving on the side of the road doesn't really do it for me."
LOW RANKING DISPUTED
Hawai'i had the nation's lowest percentage of voter turnout among voting-age adults in 2004 and 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Though some details of those calculations are disputed — the census estimates don't exclude new immigrants who can't vote because they are not yet U.S. citizens, or military personnel who don't consider Hawai'i their permanent home, for example — there's no question that many eligible voters didn't participate.
Hawai'i's voter turnout wouldn't look so dismal if the methodology for determining voter eligibility were more precise, according to the state Office of Elections.
"We're not saying those numbers would change so much that we'd be at the top of the list, but certainly not at the bottom," said state voter services coordinator Rex Quidilla.
The six states with the highest turnout rates — as determined by the Census Bureau — differ from Hawai'i and most other states in significant ways regarding voter registration or voting method. The differences could explain part of the reason that turnout is so much higher than in Hawai'i, but how big a part is anyone's guess.
Four of the highest-turnout states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire — allow residents to register and vote on the same day. And North Dakota, with the sixth-highest turnout, is the only state with no voter registration requirement.
Hawai'i and most other states require voters to register at least one month before an election. Registering is quick and easy here, but some potential voters still miss the deadline every time.
"We get quite a few calls, after the deadline has passed, from people who want to register," said Jean Aoki, legislative chair for the League of Women Voters of Hawai'i.
There probably are many reasons voter turnout is so low here, but same-day registration could help reverse the trend, she said.
"It would give the opportunity to vote to people who have forgotten, or were away, or just neglected to register," Aoki said. Many potential voters aren't too interested in politics until races heat up toward the end of the election cycle, she noted.
"A lot of the push comes as election day nears, and then they get excited about an issue or a candidate, and they can't vote," Aoki said.
MAIL-IN VOTING POPULAR
The state Office of Elections repeatedly has proposed same-day registration and voting here. Lawmakers last year briefly considered several bills that would have allowed it, but none passed beyond an initial committee vote.
"The idea has not yet caught fire," said Quidilla.
Same-day registration and voting doesn't necessarily ensure high turnout. Two additional states that allow it — Wyoming and Idaho — ranked 19th and 41st in voter turnout in 2004, according to the Census Bureau.
"Voter turnout has a lot more to do with people's connection to the electoral process," Quidilla said. "We can make the process as easy as possible, but what really has voters show up on election day is the issues, the candidates, the causes."
Oregon, the remaining state in the top six for voter turnout, is the only one that votes entirely by mail. Oregon had high turnout before mail-voting was adopted there in 1998, and it has steadily increased since then. The state had the nation's third-highest turnout rate in 2004, according to the Census Bureau.
Voting by mail is allowed in Hawai'i and other states through absentee ballots, and is becoming more popular each year here. More than 30 percent of votes cast in Hawai'i's 2004 primary and general elections were by absentee ballot, up from just more than 9 percent in 1992, according to the state Office of Elections. Most of those votes were mailed in, but the figures also include walk-in absentee votes.
Absentee ballots allow people to vote up to several weeks before an election. The method used to be reserved for those who would be out of town or unable to go to the polls on election day. But now any registered Hawai'i voter can cast an absentee ballot in the mail or in person, though voters must complete applications in advance to receive mail-in ballots.