Editor’s Note: In recent elections, Hawaii’s voter turnout has looked to be one of the lowest in the country. State elections records show a relatively steady decline over the past few decades. And national comparisons rank Hawaii near the bottom of states when it comes to getting people to the polls.

Civil Beat is shining a special spotlight on voter turnout this year. Participating in elections is more important than ever, with a U.S. Senate race in Hawaii that could play a pivotal role in the political balance in Washington not to mention a president on the ballot.

Today we begin an exploration of voting trends from a number of different angles and through a variety of efforts — this poll is one attempt to understand the phenomenon. We have a clear goal: to engage Hawaii citizens in the democratic process, to get you interested in and even excite you about voting. We want to see Hawaii’s turnout improve. Watch for more stories and other projects as the election season unfolds.

No vote, no grumble.

That’s been the mantra in Hawaii for years. It’s designed to encourage turnout and voter participation in democracy so that people can change their world — rather than complaining about lousy government decisions after the fact.

But it hasn’t worked.

Even with a special mayoral election in September and a governor’s race at the top of the ticket in November, Hawaii voters largely stayed home in 2010. Turnout has been steadily dropping over the last two decades — from more than 82 percent in 1992 to less than 56 percent two years ago. Why is that?

Civil Beat surveyed Hawaii residents earlier this month to find out. We expanded our call list from the “likely voter” base we’ve spoken to for previous incarnations of The Civil Beat Poll to include registered voters who have not voted historically and those folks who turned out only in 2008, when Hawaii-born Barack Obama won the presidency.

Likely voters say voting is a responsibility and non-voters are more likely to say it’s a choice. And the likely voters say finding time to vote is not difficult, while non-voters have a tougher time squeezing voting into their schedules.

There are other interesting findings from the poll of 1,162 registered Hawaii voters conducted April 15-17 and April 22.1 We’ll be rolling out a series of articles this week comparing how voters and non-voters view government and how they feel about key issues facing Hawaii. For today, we focus on their attitudes about voting.

Making Voting a Priority

Likely voters say voting is a civic duty more than non-voters and 2008-voters do. We asked voters, “How do you feel, personally, about voting? Do you feel that voting is more your responsibility or your choice?”

Of likely voters, 84 percent said it’s a responsibility versus 14 percent who said it’s a choice. Non-voters were split 61 percent to 32 percent, and 2008-only voters 67 percent to 29 percent. Overall, of the universe of all registered voters, 78 percent said it’s a responsibility and 19 percent said it’s a choice.

The groups also differed when it came to what’s perceived as one of the main barriers to voting: time. Likely voters didn’t think lack of time was something that would prevent them from getting to the polls. But that percentage dropped for non-voters, who acknowledged a lack of time was more problematic for them.

Asked, “How difficult is it for you to find the time to vote — is it often difficult, sometimes difficult, or not difficult,” 82 percent of likely voters said it’s not difficult and 11 percent more said it’s only sometimes difficult. Just 5 percent said it’s often difficult.

By comparison, only 62 percent of non-voters and 64 percent of those who only voted in 2008 answered that finding time is not difficult.

For 2008-only voters, 9 percent said it’s often difficult and 20 percent sometimes difficult. Of non-voters, 12 percent said finding time to vote is often difficult and 19 percent said it was sometimes difficult.

Overall, 76 percent of all registered voters say finding time to vote is not hard versus 13 percent who said it’s sometimes hard and 7 percent who said it is hard. And yet in 2010 only about 56 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the general election.

It’s become easier to find time to vote in recent years as more voters have taken advantage of absentee and early voting that lets residents show up at certain polling places up to two weeks before Election Day to cast votes at their leisure.

Even as 2010 voters snoozed through the gubernatorial primary and special mayoral race, they set an early voting record and nearly 130,000 primary voters cast absentee ballots despite some confusion. In the general election, more than 160,000 absentee ballots were cast.

But some argue that election reform is “reducing the civic significance of elections” and actually reducing turnout.

Being Informed and Making a Difference

Regardless of their voting history, those surveyed agreed on two things: 1) people should vote only if they’re informed and stay clear of the polls if they’re not up to speed on what’s going on; and 2) voting matters.

Civil Beat asked, “Thinking about how other people vote, do you feel that people should only vote if they are informed about the issues and candidates? Or do you feel that people should vote if they want to, even if they are not well informed about the issues and candidates?”

There were no statistically significant differences between the responses from likely voters, non-voters and 2008-only voters. As a whole, 51 percent of registered voters said only informed voters should participate, 37 percent said folks should vote if they want to, even if they don’t follow the issues and candidates, and 12 percent said they weren’t sure.

Civil Beat also asked, “How do you feel about your vote—how much does your vote matter — a lot, somewhat, or not at all?”

Again, the responses from the different voter groups were statistically even. The majority of registered voters — 56 percent — said their votes matter a lot, 31 percent said it matters somewhat, and 9 percent said it does not matter.

Who Votes, and Who Doesn’t?

Likely voters are generally better educated, wealthier and whiter than non-voters. Here are the details:

  • Fifty-five percent of likely voters are women, while 52 percent of non-voters are men. Overall, 53 percent of registered voters are women.
  • Sixty-four percent of likely voters have a college or graduate degree, more than the 53 percent of non-voters who are that educated. Overall, 26 percent of registered voters have a graduate degree, 35 percent a college degree, 36 percent a high school degree and 4 percent no degree.
  • Twenty-six percent of likely voters have more than $100,000 in annual household income versus 17 percent of non-voters. Forty-five percent of non-voters have less than $50,000 in annual household income versus 36 percent of likely voters. Overall, 38 percent of registered voters have household income less than $50,000, 38 percent between $50,000 and $100,000 and 24 percent above $100,000.
  • Fifty percent of likely voters identified themselves as Caucasian, while 34 percent of non-voters are white. Overall, 46 percent of registered voters said they were Caucasian, 14 percent Japanese, 15 percent Filipino, 10 percent Hawaiian, 3 percent Chinese, 2 percent Hispanic or Latino and 15 percent other or mixed.

Meanwhile, 2008-only voters and are generally younger, more liberal and have more family military service than other registered voters. The details:

  • Forty-one percent of 2008-only voters are 65 years old or older versus 59 percent of likely voters and 53 percent of nonvoters. Overall, 56 percent of registered voters are 65-plus, 30 percent are between 50 and 64, and 13 percent are 18 to 49.
  • Twenty-five percent of 2008-only voters said they’re liberal or progressive, versus 15 percent for nonvoters. Overall, 20 percent of registered voters said they’re liberal or progressive, 36 percent moderate and 27 percent conservative.
  • There were no statistically significant differences among the three voter groups when it came to party identification. Overall, 42 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 19 percent Republican and 30 percent independent.
  • Twenty-one percent of 2008-only voters said they or a spouse, sibling, parent or child served active military duty in Iraq or Afghanistan during the past decade, versus 11 percent of likely voters.

Looking Forward to 2012 Turnout

Perhaps because they see voting as a responsibility and generally have time to do it, voters who have voted in the past expect they’ll continue voting in the future.

Asked how likely it is that they’ll vote in the November 2012 General Election, 92 percent of historically likely voters said definitely or very likely, 5 percent said it’s it’s somewhat likely and only 1 percent said unlikely.

For those who have registered but not voted in the past, 78 percent said they’ll either definitely vote this year or it’s very likely, versus 9 percent who said somewhat likely and 8 percent who said unlikely. Of the 2008-only voters, 83 percent said they’ll definitely or very likely participate again in 2012, while 8 percent said it’s somewhat likely and 5 percent said it’s unlikely.

Overall, 89 percent of all registered voters said they’ll definitely or very likely vote in November. If they keep their word, that would represent a tremendous leap in voter turnout from one of the low-water marks in recent history to the highest level in more than 20 years and one of the highest levels in the country.

But making a commitment during a telephone survey in April and actually showing up for the election in November are two very different things.

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