Four years ago, less than a third of young people in Hawaii between ages 18 and 29 voted, the lowest youth turnout in the nation. But grassroots organizations in Hawaii want 2012 to be different.

“What it’s going to take to get the money out is to get people back in,” said James Koshiba, founder of the nonprofit Kanu Hawaii, last week to a room of about two dozen volunteers. Koshiba was referring to the millions of dollars spent on influencing elections and politics every year. He said, “It’s the only antidote to politics that feels like it’s out of our hands.”

“Amen!” responded 24-year-old Aislinn Coleman, prompting a chorus of laughter. Coleman is one of about 40 volunteers whom Koshiba has enlisted to canvass houses, speak in classrooms, and reach out over social media in a nonpartisan effort to increase voter registration and turnout.

Coleman has never been involved in politics before, but then again, neither has Kanu Hawaii. The mission of the organization is to make Hawaii more compassionate, sustainable and self-reliant. Civic engagement is a new initiative specific to 2012, and so far they’ve registered more than 1,200 people to vote.

“Even if the effect I have now is small, even just being a part of a seedling group that could grow into something that has a huge impact inspires me,” Coleman told Civil Beat.

Koshiba says that’s the point.

“It starts with people getting involved and inspired to participate and ends with policy change,” Koshiba said.

Changing the Status Quo

Kanu Hawaii is one of several organizations working this year to change Hawaii’s abysmal voter turnout rate.

They’ve partnered with other groups like Common Cause and No Vote No Grumble as they work toward the same goal: get more people registered and voting in this year’s election. The state Office of Elections doesn’t consider increasing voter turnout to be part of its job, so these groups are picking up the slack.

Just 31 percent of youth voters in Hawaii went to the polls last presidential election, far below the national average of 51 percent.

It’s ironic given that President Barack Obama, who was born and raised in Hawaii, inspired young people across the nation to vote.

“[One reason might be] a general perception that federal elections have little to do with Hawaii,” said Collin Moore, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii who specializes in elections and voter turnout. “I think maybe because they don’t feel inspired by the federal election they just don’t turn out to vote.”

The absence of active political groups on the university campus is also a strong indicator of political apathy, Moore said.

Koshiba said the barriers to youth voting that he hears about most frequently are lack of accessibility, lack of information, and disillusionment with the political process.

He said he thinks these can be overcome, and he’s not the only one.

Christopher Stump, a junior at the University of Hawaii, is heading a new initiative to get students registered to vote through the university’s undergraduate and graduate student governments. After getting 60 students registered in the first couple of days, Stump said he’s hopeful that the project will take off and become an annual affair.

Karim Troost, another junior at the university, co-founded the Politically Active Student Alliance this fall to increase student awareness about how to vote and why it matters. The group is planning forums to foster dialogue about the voting process and key political issues.

According to several University of Hawaii professors, they haven’t seen anything on the scale of Kanu Hawaii’s project.

“Kanu Hawaii’s is definitely the most extensive outreach to increase youth voter turnout that I’ve ever seen,” said Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, an assistant professor in the university’s political science department.

In May, the organization registered about 350 students over the course 10 days at University of Hawaii and Winward Community College, and canvassed in Kaneohe.

This fall, over 100 professors have requested that the organization come into their classrooms to pass out voter registration forms, and the organization plans to canvass Manoa, Waianae and Waimanalo in partnership with No Vote No Grumble.

In addition to going into classrooms and registering voters door-to-door, the organization is collecting information on what voters want to know about their candidates, sending questionnaires to candidates, and sharing candidates’ responses with constituents through mailings and an online game.

It’s part of an effort to get information to voters who may feel as though they don’t know enough about their candidates to vote or don’t get their questions answered.

“There is a lot of distrust [when we knock on doors] because people aren’t used to being listened to without an agenda,” said Aiko Yamashiro, a 26-year-old graduate student at UH who started volunteering with Kanu Hawaii over the summer. “When we got better at communicating [that we’re nonpartisan], those moments were very inspiring.”

More Opportunity through Social Media

A key aspect of No Vote No Grumble and Kanu Hawaii’s campaign is a concerted social media push.

“We want to show that we can still make a difference on getting people engaged and participating…without needing a massive checkbook. Social media is going to be critical for that,” said Olin Lagon, an entrepreneur and software engineer who is coordinating Kanu Hawaii’s online initiative.

The effort includes designing and sharing infographics that convey the importance of voting, reaching out among Facebook friends, and designing and marketing a game that teaches people about candidates and their positions.

“There’s a huge shift that’s going on that not everyone is aware of,” he said. “Fifty percent of all U.S. internet traffic is on Facebook. So what that tells us is that people are clicking through to content when they see it on Facebook.”

Civil Beat reported in July that campaigns in Hawaii have been using social media to attract support, but online tools are perhaps even more useful for grassroots efforts like Kanu Hawaii’s that aren’t bankrolled by major donors.

Results of the organization’s campaign have so far been difficult to measure, but Lagon said he is confident that the social media outreach will provide the kind of return on investment that may not be achievable simply through face-to-face contact.

“My gut is telling me that the social media bang for the buck is far higher than [other efforts],” he said. “From what little data we’ve seen, the social media efforts are paying off a lot higher in terms of getting people engaged with the efforts.”

In the meantime, anecdotal evidence has been exciting.

“A guy said he Google-ed his district candidates and the [Kanu Hawaii] site was the first one of the results and the site gave him sufficient information to vote,” Lagon said. “For me, that was Christmas.”

Should the State Be Doing More?

Nonprofit efforts to increase voter turnout have been ongoing, but some think that the state should be doing more.

Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause in Hawaii, said Hawaii could improve turnout by allowing voters to register the same day they go to the polls. The organization effectively advocated to make voter registration an online process, but it won’t happen until 2016.

Moore from the University of Hawaii agreed.

“You drive around town and you barely see signs encouraging people to vote,” Moore said. “In a state that consistently has the lowest turnout it’s surprising. I think there’s a big place for the state to have a role [increasing turnout].”

But Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the Hawaii Office of Elections, said the problem of voter turnout is not one that the Office of Elections can effectively address.

“The goal is to keep that [voting] process accessible and convenient,” he said. “We are on the hook for the who, what, when and where. The ‘why’ is something that we can’t necessarily supply.”

Hawaii’s Office of Elections has been criticized in the past for not doing more to increase turnout.

The Pew Research Center rated Hawaii below average for how well its election office presents information online. Other states offer more voting information for students, military and overseas voters. Twenty-four states include nonpartisan information on ballot measures.

Quidilla said that in the past the Office of Elections has provided technical support to organizations like Kids Voting, which provides civic education in grades K-12. The office also facilitates voter preregistration for youth ages 16-17.

Other state agencies, like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, have been involved in voter registration efforts. In July OHA partnered with Kanu Hawaii and No Vote No Grumble to register almost 1000 people at a popular reggae concert.

But Quidilla downplayed the impact that the state can make on getting voters to polls.

“When you look at what drives turnout… it really is the candidates and the cause,” Quidilla said. “And no single administrative measure is the panacea to resolve those issues.”

Koshiba said that given what he sees as widespread disillusionment with the political process, the state may not be able to provide the solution.

“Government is viewed with suspicion and cynicism,” Koshiba said. “It has to be a bottom up grassroots effort and I think it has to be something that is not driven by PR or advertising or anything that requires large sums of money.”

Hawaii’s Future Leaders?

While the grassroots efforts are focused on this election, a few are already looking beyond until 2016.

“What I like personally in what Kanu is doing is they are not just working for the moment,” said Marilyn Kahn, co-chair of No Vote No Grumble. “They have a vision and the vision is that [with] what we’re doing now… we’re trying to prepare new leaders.”

Koshiba said part of what Kanu Hawaii is hoping to do is convince young people not only to vote now but to consider running for office in the future.

Troost, who is volunteering with Kanu Hawaii in addition to starting the Politically Active Student Association at UH, said the experience has inspired him to think seriously about a political career.

“Working with Kanu has definitely been encouraging for me,” he said. “I’ve actually felt like I’ve made a difference with them.”

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