Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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.

Voters behind the curtain
Voters behind the curtain 

What can be done to boost voter participation in Hawaii? And would any effort really be effective?

Experiences on the mainland, along with evaluations of Hawaii election procedures, suggest several types of legal and procedural changes that would be likely to bolster voter registration and election turnout, although studies suggest the overall impact may be modest at best.

Some proposals have already drawn significant public support and, in one case, legislative backing as well.

Authorize Election Day Registration

The change most likely to produce an immediate increase in voter turnout is election day voter registration, allowing eligible adults to register and vote at their regular polling places on election day.

Hawaii currently requires voters to register no less than 30 days before an election, but advocates of election day registration say many voters don’t pay much attention to campaign issues until just before it’s time to vote. Often campaigns don’t really heat up until the deadline to register has already passed.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law says “early deadlines act to exclude eligible citizens who would otherwise be eager to vote,” and calls election day registration “a key step” in modernizing our system of elections.

Only a minority of states currently allow some form of election day registration, but they include states with the highest voter turnout.

A 2011 study by Demos, a New York-based policy research and advocacy group, estimated overall voter turnout in Hawaii would be boosted by 5.3 percent, while some segments of the population would benefit even more.

According to the Demos study, which was based on a complex computer simulation of past elections and voting changes experienced in other states adopting EDR, turnout among 18- to 25-year-old voters would likely rise 9.2 percent, turnout among those 26 to 35 years old would rise 6.9 percent, and election participation by new residents would increase 7.3 percent.

Allow online voter registration

The Legislature earlier this year passed a law, House Bill 1755, putting place an online voter registration process. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the measure and the new process is expected to be operational in time for the 2014 elections.

Hawaii had required people to submit registration applications in person or by mail. That’s “kind of old fashioned” and probably results in fewer young people registering to vote, says Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii.

“Younger people are used to the immediacy of doing things online,” Love told Civil Beat. “You can buy anything immediately online, contribute money online, why not register to vote online?”

Extend poll hours

Polling places in Hawaii open at 7 a.m. and close at 6 p.m., giving voters a smaller window in which to cast their votes than all but a handful of mainland states.

“We open the polls at times that make sense for poll workers, but not for voters,” according to Annelle Amaral, a former state representative and former chair of the Oahu County Democratic Party.

“When they open at 7 a.m., there’s a long line,” Amaral said. “People are trying to get in and vote before they go to work. They see the long line, throw up their hands, and walk away. Maybe they come back, maybe not.”

Amaral, who was an appointed member of a 2001 Election Review Task Force to recommend improvements in the administration of elections, said the same dynamics repeat in the afternoon.

“If I work in town, and live in Makakilo, it takes me an hour and half to reach there after work, and it’s likely I won’t make it by six.”

Amaral recommends evaluating voter participation and changing hours so they make sense for today’s voters and today’s lifestyles.

“It could mean opening early, at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and staying open at least until 7 p.m.,” she said.

At least 45 states keep polls open until 7 p.m., and 21 remain open until 8 p.m. or even later.

Prioritize polling place ballot information

Amaral, who has done training of poll workers, said the most important spot at each polling place is right at the entrance, where a facsimile of the ballot is displayed and voters have a chance to ask questions about how to fill out each ballot correctly.

But if the polling place is short on staff, they are most likely to leave the information position unfilled, Amaral said.

“So what happens is that people don’t get information, they aren’t prepped ahead of time, then they go into the booth and make a mistake,” Amaral said. “Now braddah feels that he’s incompetent and stupid, and you’ve lost another voter.”

To avoid the situation, Amaral said election officials have to put a priority on being sure that the information position is filled on election day in each polling place.

Expand voter education

Hawaii election officials get high marks for running elections, but voter education aimed at facilitating increased public participation tends to get overlooked in the process.

Maui consultant and Democratic activist Kallie Keith-Agaran sees voter education as important because she has found most young adults on Maui “know essentially nothing about elections, parties, primaries, etc., and as a result don’t register or don’t vote.”

“Some of them know they don’t know enough to make good choices on their own,” Keith-Agaran said. “Some are simply overwhelmed and avoid the whole concept of voting altogether.”

Catherine “Kitty” Lagareta, CEO of Communications Pacific and a GOP insider during the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle, feels the state needs to be doing a better job of educating these potential voters.

Lagareta, who served as a member of the 2001 Election Reform Task Force, faults the state for failing to tackle voter education.

“There is no interest in or effort by our state to activate the mass of voters, to give them information, to educate and inform,” Lagareta said.

“I didn’t see any fraud in our elections,” Lagareta said, “but one of the most damaging things is absolutely zero interest on the part of election officials in encouraging people to vote.”

“That’s my bottom line impression,” Lagareta said. “We don’t put any money behind it, and it’s not implemented.”

Amaral, a member of the same election task force, agreed.

“The Office of Elections does not spend a lot of effort on helping encourage people to vote, on educating voters, on talking about how important voting is,” Amaral said. “They just see see their job as running the election, not getting out the vote.”

“They don’t have the fervor that us civilians have about getting the vote out, seeing this democracy in action as a really exciting thing,” Amaral said. “They just don’t come with that perspective.”

Election officials told Civil Beat that they try to make voter registration forms and other information widely available in public places like state agencies, post offices, and libraries, but don’t believe their job includes actively pushing registration.

“We make it all available, but it’s up to the voter to fill it out,” said Scott Nago, the state’s chief elections officer.

Glen Takahashi, Honolulu’s top elections administrator, described the philosophy.

“We make the services accessible, so that when people decide they want to participate, they don’t have to drive 50 mies to a back office hidden somewhere,” he said.

A 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States that rated the Hawaii Office of Elections website gave it a score of 65.7, where “average” scores ranged from 65-78, and websites needed a score of 79 or above to be considered “good.”

“Hawaii scores low overall and presents a below-average web site for users with voting information that is not prioritized and sometimes duplicative,” the study concluded.

The PEW study recommended adding features such as allowing voters to view their registration status and status of absentee ballots, providing descriptions of voting machines used at polling places, and offering information on ballot measures such as constitutional amendments, including full text, summaries, and nonpartisan analyses.

State Sen. Les Ihara thinks we need a voter education program separate and distinct from the Office of Elections.

“It should be a separate division that isn’t stressed out with organizing the polls and running the election, some other entity where the goal is getting election information to the public and building public participation,” Ihara said.

Critics of the so-called “convenience voting” reforms — from easier voter registration to mail-in ballots — say none of these things really make much difference.

One widely cited study of voting in the 2008 presidential election done at American University found no evidence convenience reforms had increased turnout.

“Of the 14 states which had the largest turnout increases in 2008, only six had implemented one form or another of convenience voting,” the study reported. “Of the 13 states which had the largest turnout decreases, all but one had one form or another of convenience voting.”

Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, said the study showed voter motivation, driven by fear or anger, makes the difference in voter turnout, and not the ease of voting.

If you ask them, they will come

But another expert says getting voters to the polls is actually very simple — just ask them to vote.

That’s the lesson drawn from hundreds of election experiments conducted in California by Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College.

Michelson’s experiments have targeted Asian, Latino and Pacific Islander communities where residents tend to be younger and nonvoters.

“People who haven’t voted before often feel like voting is something they are not a part of, politics isn’t something they are part of,” she said. “Voting seems like something wealthy people do, something Americans do, or that older people do. There have an understanding of citizenship and understanding of being part of the polity that doesn’t include them.”

But in a series of experiments in different elections and different parts of California, Michelson has found ways to increase voting.

“You can counter those attitudes by inviting them in,” she said. “If you call them, or go to their homes, or interact in other ways with them personally, they then reconceptualize for themselves just who they are and how they fit in, and begin to see themselves as voters. And they vote.”

“That’s the basic message in 300 community experiments I’ve done, it’s all about that personal contact,” Michelson said.

The most effective way to encourage new voters is having someone they would consider a trusted source, a friend or neighbor, contact them.

“A close neighbor was most effective going door to door,” Michelson said. “The closer the canvasser lived to their house, the more effective they were.”

However, Michelson said they were also able to show positive, if more limited effects, by inserting messages into direct mailings.

“You can get some of the same effect by just saying, in a postcard, ‘thanks for being a voter, and, by the way, there’s another election next week,’” she said.

Michelson said a lack of information about candidates and issues isn’t really the problem.

“Once you’ve convinced someone that they should vote, they will seek out the information they need. Get them interested in voting, and they’ll take care of the rest,” she said.

In Michelson’s experiments, researchers first obtain a voter list that shows who has registered and voted in the past. Then the researchers test different types of messages to encourage new voters. After the election, they obtain updated voter lists and are able to count the number of new voters.

“We don’t know who they voted for, but we’re able to tell whether they voted,” she said.

Michelson said she has been working with election officials to design official mailings that incorporate messages to boost voter participation.

“Just thanking them for being voters can make a difference,” she said. “The person doesn’t even have to have voted before. People just like this idea of being thanked, and it has an effect on their future behavior.”

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