Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of stories examining Hawaii’s low voter participation rates. Read previous stories in the series as well as other initiatives Civil Beat is undertaking to understand why people don’t vote.

If Americans paid more attention to elections in other democratic countries, they would likely come away with an unsettling realization: Just as voter turnout in Hawaii lags behind that in other states, turnout across the U.S. lags behind that recorded in most of the world’s countries.

The data is disheartening, and tends to undermine America’s self-image as a leader among democratic nations.

“Voter turnout in the U.S. is lower than all other industrialized nations and most other democracies,” said Todd Belt, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Belt shows his students a graph illustrating voter turnout in the U.S. compared to a number of other countries. It is not a pretty picture.

The graph reflects data gathered by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

The United States ranked 135th out of 169 countries in voter turnout when measured by the percentage of the adult population participating in elections, according to a major study published by the group in 2002.

The U.S. fared somewhat better when turnout was measured by the percent of registered voters who actually went to the polls, rising to 120th in the international rankings.

In the latter comparison, U.S. voter turnout between 1945 and 2001 averaged 66.5 percent, well below countries like Australia, Belgium, Austria and New Zealand, which were all at 90 percent or above, and Bolivia, Germany, Tunisia, and even Venezuela, all with voter turnout above 80 percent.

The somewhat embarrassing international comparisons are not new. A classic study of voter turnout in industrial democracies by G. Bingham Powell Jr., published in 1986, noted “levels of voter turnout in the United States are consistently far below the democratic average.”

Average turnout in presidential elections in the U.S. from 1972 to 1980 was just 54 percent, Powell reported, while the average turnout in comparable elections in twenty other industrialized democracies was 80 percent

Lessons from Down Under

Australia’s voter turnout is at or near the top of most international comparisons, so a closer look at election policies in this Pacific neighbor may provide some useful ideas.

In a typical Australian parliamentary election, akin to our congressional elections, 95 percent of registered voters cast ballots, according to election statistics compiled by IDEA. When compared to the voting age population, Australia’s turnout rate drops, but has still been above 80 percent in every election since 1946.

There are several reasons for Australia’s success in turnout out the vote. The most important one is simple: It’s the law.

Australia is one of a handful of countries where registering to vote, and voting on election day, is compulsory, and has been since 1924.

“If you don’t show up at the polls and pick up a ballot paper, you are liable for a fine of up to $50,” according to John Hart, professor of political science at Australia National University in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “It induces a very high level of voting.”

Technically, Australians are not compelled to vote, Hart said.

“You are compelled to go to the polling station and pick up a ballot, but after that you can vote, or just drop it in the ballot box blank, scribble obscenities on it, even just throw it away,” Hart said.

Registered voters who fail to vote receive a postcard asking them to provide a reason for not showing up or pay a $20 fine. If the non-voter fails to respond, or doesn’t provide a valid reason, they can be taken to court and fined up to $50 plus court costs, although this doesn’t happen often.

Compulsory voting is coupled with something equally important — an efficient voter registration system. Both registration and elections for federal offices are administered by the Australian Electoral Commission, a government agency overseen by a three-person board.

“In Australia, the state takes responsibility for notifying you about your voter registration,” Hart said. “For example, when you turn 18, you will get a postcard from the commission explaining that you’re eligible to vote, and telling how to do it. It is usually as simple as returning the postcard.”

If you move within the country, the electoral commission uses public records to identify your new residence and contact you about updating your voter registration.

“I moved from one parliamentary electorate to another,” Hart said. “The very first piece of mail I received at the new location was a card from the election commission asking me to update my voter registration.”

The election process, from registration through voting, “is user friendly across the board,” Hart said.

Elections are held on Saturday to minimize conflicts with work schedules, and those who can’t vote on election day are allowed to vote early, or vote by mail.

“There are polling stations within easy reach of everybody, and very liberal arrangements for postal voting,” Hart said.

“Even if you’re in another place on voting day, you can go into any polling station irrespective of where you live,” Hart said. “I don’t know of any other country that makes it as easy as that.”

Compulsory voting does have an indirect impact on political parties, according to Hart.

“It makes local political parties very lazy, in that the government gets out the vote for them,” he said.

In the U.S., candidates and local party organizations have to mobilize to get their voters to the polls on election day, but in Australia the job has already been done by the government.

Looking to Asia

Lonny Carlile, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii who is also on the staff of the Center for Japanese Studies, said Japan has experienced declining voter turnout similar to the U.S.

Up until 1990, most parliamentary elections in Japan achieved voter turnouts well above 70 percent of the adult population, he said.

Following a substantial decline in the 1990s, turnout now hovers between 60 and 70 percent in national elections, but still above turnout in the U.S.

Carlile said several different factors may be at play.

First, Japanese citizens are automatically registered to vote when they reach the voting age of 20. Members of local election committees rely on Japan’s unique registry of residents and add those who turn 20 years onto the voter lists.

“About the only time most citizens need to take any action is when they want to cast an absentee ballot,” Carlile said.

Second, Japan passed “reform” legislation in 1994 which changed the makeup of its legislature, the National Diet.

Prior to 1994, for example, elections were not “winner take all” affairs. Rather, each electoral district would elect three to five candidates. The system encouraged multiple parties, and minority parties were able to gain representation.

The 1994 reforms created a mixed system. The majority of seats in the House of Representatives — 300 of the 480 total seats — are now elected from single-member districts. The remaining 180 seats are filled through a proportional system. Voters select a political party, rather than a candidate, and the seats are distributed proportionate to the number of votes cast for each party.

Several political observers have suggested Hawaii’s adoption of single-member districts has contributed to declining voter turnout in the islands, and it may be that the post-1994 electoral system could somehow contribute to declining turnout

In addition, voter turnout tends to be lower in Japan’s cities than in rural areas.

“In rural areas, there tend to be strong producer groups, organizations like agricultural cooperatives, with strong social ties,” Carlile said. “Those are the basis of networks that mobilize voters. Cities don’t have the same social mobilization and turnout rates tend to be lower.”

The next potential factor is cynicism, Carlile said.

“According to one study, Japanese were the most cynical voters in all advanced industrialized countries,” he said. “Half of all voters surveyed felt their vote didn’t count, partly the result of one political party that was in power from 1955 to 2009.”

Finally, there has been a strong increase in independent voters who don’t identify with political parties, Carlile said.

“These voters are part of a growing trend of people wanting to participate by doing something directly by being active in nonprofit organizations, not only by participating in elections,” he said.

Carlile said the desire for direct, active participation has fueled the growth of the many nonprofit community organizations which have emerged in Japan, ranging from social welfare organizations to those taking on other kinds of social activism, such as anti-nuclear and anti-corruption groups.

“Cast your whole vote”

In his famous 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau advised against relying only on the ballot box.

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence,” Thoreau wrote.

It was a very early reminder that there is more to democracy than voting. And that may be one clue to understanding the mystery of falling voter turnout in countries like Japan as well as the United States.

Russell Dalton, a political scientist at University of California, Irvine, argues we are seeing a “Third Wave of Democratization,” in which citizens are turning more toward various types of social action when dealing with political problems and issues.

In a 2007 article, Dalton wrote: “Elections provide infrequent and fairly blunt tools of political influence. If one is dissatisfied with the policies of the Bush (or Clinton) administration, waiting several years to vote in the next election as a means of political participation seems like political inaction.”

Instead, citizen responses have expanded beyond the simple act of voting to incorporate a range of direct action, including campaigning for or against candidates, joining or supporting advocacy groups, taking part in protests and demonstrations, using social media to back a cause and spread a message, contacting public officials directly, and so on.

Dalton points to data showing that while the U.S. lags in voter turnout, Americans are more likely than counterparts in other countries to have been involved in these other forms of direct political action. Voter turnout has indeed declined, but the types and amount of “nonelectoral engagement” have increased.

Coming full circle back to Hawaii, it seems clear that we can go to school on how to improve our voter registration system, making it far more proactive, efficient and user friendly. Elections, from the design of ballots to voting hours, can be adjusted to serve voters rather than election administrators.

And that mystery in South Maui, where the organized, vocal and effective Kihei Community Association can’t seem to boost voter turnout? Perhaps we should be asking a different question. Along with asking why more residents of South Maui aren’t voting on election day, perhaps we need to ask what voters in all communities can do to organize and communicate their views and needs directly to local and state officials and policy makers.

Voting is obviously important, but it’s not the only way — and perhaps no longer the most important way — for citizens to act together politically.

Ian Lind is a veteran political reporter and longtime Hawaii investigative journalist who blogs at iLind.net.

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