Editor’s Note: Civil Beat has been exploring Hawaii’s low voter participation rates through a series of initiatives. In May, we polled voters and non-voters alike to ask why they do or don’t vote. In June, we teamed up with the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly to develop a new Facebook voting game, Our Hawaiian Spring, aimed at engaging people in this year’s elections. This special series of stories by veteran Hawaii political reporter and blogger Ian Lind is another effort to understand why many people don’t vote in Hawaii and what can be done to change that. Today we take a close look at the numbers and in coming days will delve into the reasons why they are so low.

Hawaii voters went to the polls in large numbers between June 1959 and November 1960, first to determine whether they wanted the islands to become the 50th state, then to elect the entire slate of state officials, including governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature, and finally to participate in the islands’ first presidential election.

This flurry of political activity came just five years after the balance of political power tipped in favor of a surging Democratic Party. Public support appeared evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and there were contested races at all levels as the new state took shape.

This was heady stuff, and voter turnout was stunningly high. A record 93.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the statehood referendum held in June 1959, and turnout in 1960’s General Election was just a fraction of a percent lower at 93.1 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Hawaii Office of Elections.

But times and politics have definitely changed.


Afternoon Voters

Across the country, voter turnout has been on the decline since the 1960s, but Hawaii started higher than most and has fallen farther over the years.

Simply put, it appears fewer people in Hawaii bother to vote than in almost any other place. The reasons are not at all clear, but the data appears to be.

Hawaii now consistently ranks at or near the bottom in voter turnout when compared with other states. Although there are several ways to measure voter turnout (see Measuring Voter Turnout: An Inconsistent Science), Hawaii ranks at or near the bottom in nearly all of them.

The official measure of turnout used by Hawaii’s election officials is the percentage of registered voters who actually cast ballots. Turnout is reported after each election by the Hawaii Office of Elections, along with official election results.

The decline isn’t a straight line because voter turnout tends to be higher during presidential election years, then drops a little during the “off” year elections. Historically, the variance has been small, but in the last two election cycles the gap between turnout in presidential and non-presidential elections increased to an average of 12 percent.

In the important presidential election of 2008, with Hawaii’s own Barack Obama on the presidential ballot, two-thirds of Hawaii’s registered voters went to the polls.

Although this sounds like a respectable number, only one other presidential election since statehood drew a smaller state turnout. That was in 2000, when Hawaii reported voter turnout of just 58.2 percent.

Differences in voter registration procedures and requirements makes an apples-to-apples comparison with other states difficult. Instead of defining turnout as the “percent of registered voters,” most comparisons define turnout as the percentage of adults, or eligible adults, who cast ballots in an election.

Eligible adults would be limited to those who are U.S. citizens, 18 years or older, and who have not been disqualified from voting due to a felony conviction or because they’ve been declared legally incompetent.

The Census Bureau reports turnout both ways, as a percentage of all adults, and as a percentage of adult citizens.

But whatever definition is used, the answer is about the same — Hawaii is among the states with the lowest election participation.

Hawaii ranked dead last in voter turnout among the 50 states in the 2008 presidential election, despite having the chance to vote for an island-born candidate. Only 51.8 percent of all adult citizens in the state voted, compared to the national average of 63.6 percent, according to data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hawaii also trailed all other states in voter registration. Only 59.1 percent of adult citizens were registered to vote, well below the national average of 71 percent.

Changes in federal law inflate voter lists, lower turnout rate

But Hawaii election officials say voter turnout may not be as bad as it appears.

Scott Nago, the state’s chief election officer, says the apparent ongoing decline in voter turnout is, in part, an artifact of a 1993 change in federal law.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, stopped state and local governments from dropping registered voters from the rolls just because they don’t vote.

Previously, Hawaii residents were automatically deleted from voter lists if they failed to show up during two consecutive election cycles.

“At that time, we were very strict,” said Honolulu election administrator Glen Takahashi. “If you missed two elections, you were kicked off.”

For example, if a registered voter failed to vote in either the primary or general election over successive two-year election cycles, under the old procedures they would have been “scrubbed” from the list of registered voters. In order to vote in any future election, they would have had to re-register.

“Now it’s harder for the clerks to remove anyone from the voter rolls,” Nago said. “It’s a much longer process.”

Hawaii election statistics seem to support the notion of a direct link between the change in the law and lower official voter turnout numbers.

Between passage of the federal law in 1993, and the 2010 election, the number of registered voters in Hawaii jumped much faster than the number of votes cast.

The number of registered voters in the state climbed nearly 49 percent between 1992, just before passage of Motor Voter, and 2010, while the number of votes cast rose less than 1 percent. Voter turnout dropped from 82.4 percent to 55.8 percent during the period, according to the Office of Elections.

Election officials say inactive voters — those who register but don’t vote — can’t be dropped unless and until officials go through a long, multi-step process to show they have moved from the address where they were registered and did not leave a new forwarding address. Otherwise, they remain on the list of registered voters until they die or ask to be removed.

The process goes something like this: Election officials regularly search the U.S. Postal Service’s national change-of-address database for voters who have moved as well as lists of reported deaths. This is done at the beginning of each election year, Takahashi said.

Later in the year, election officials send out yellow voter information postcards which are returned by the postal service if they can’t be delivered. Then a follow-up mailing is sent to missing voters with instructions to forward, if possible.

If the voters still can’t be located, they are flagged as “inactive” and slated for removal. But federal law requires a grace period covering two full federal election cycles, or four years. Only after the two full elections have passed can inactive voters, and those voters who can’t be located, be purged from the list.

The whole process takes a minimum of four years, and usually longer. The result, officials say, is a voter list which includes “deadwood” — voters who don’t vote, can’t be located, but can’t be dropped until the mandatory grace period is over.

Takahashi estimated Honolulu’s voter list includes 8 percent to 12 percent “deadwood” at any one time.

Total voter registration, including active and inactive voters, has been boosted by other changes resulting from the Motor Voter Act. The law required election officials to make voter registration easier by making applications available where people apply for drivers’ licenses, register their cars, or make other routine visits to government offices. Voter registration by mail has also been expanded.

The combination of easier voter registration and the state’s inability to remove missing voters from the rolls boosted the number of registered voters from 402,795 in 1980 to 690,748 in 2010. This represents a slight increase in the proportion of the eligible adult population registered to vote, up from 62.3 percent to 71.9 percent, according to data compiled by the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

But while the total number of registered voters in Hawaii is increasing, the actual number of active voters — those who actually have voted at least once in the past two election years — has grown at a much slower pace. Total voter registration increased by 128,702 between 1996 and 2010, but the number of active voters rose by less than half as much (60,616).

Todd Belt, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, says the ease of voter registration may result in a larger number of less motivated voters who, in turn, are less likely to actually cast ballots.

“It used to take much more effort to register, so those who were motivated to register were also motivated to vote,” Belt said. “Also, in the years after statehood, voting had a ‘novelty’ effect — when people first get an opportunity to have a large-scale effect with their vote, they are more likely to do so, and then the novelty fades away, and interest declines.”

What appears to be the steady downturn in voter turnout may also turn out to be the result of conflating two different and conflicting trends.

George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald, whose research is behind data used by the U.S. Elections Project, has calculated state-by-state turnout for 1980-2010 using population figures adjusted to remove ineligible voters, including non-citizens, felons, and those under age 18.

These adjusted statistics show island voter turnout in non-presidential elections, the years in which Hawaii elects its governor, remained stable at nearly 50 percent of the eligible adult population from 1982 to 2002, but dropped to an average of just 39.2 percent in the past two gubernatorial elections.

This means fewer than 4 in every 10 registered voters actually cast ballots in recent gubernatorial elections, allowing as few as 20 percent of Hawaii’s voting-eligible adults to make up a majority and elect the governor.

And the result is that the choice of governor, and the policy direction that results, is now in the hands of a very small number of island voters.

Meanwhile, though, voter turnout during presidential elections has remained relatively stable over the past 30 years, ranging between 48 percent and 50 percent, except for a dip in 1996 and 2000. This runs counter to the notion that Hawaii’s voter turnout is caught in a downward spiral. Instead, voter turnout seems to be holding steady, at least in those years when we elect a president.

Sometimes, though, holding steady isn’t good enough.

Take the 2008 presidential election. Hawaii’s voter turnout remained steady at just under 50 percent.

But in state after state across the mainland, voter turnout soared, rising from an average of 40 percent in 2006 to 61.6 percent in 2008. As a result, even though many more island residents turned out to vote, we still ranked last in voter turnout among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, McDonald’s data shows.

On the other hand, although the number of Hawaii voters going to the polls in 2010 dropped by 15 percent, we moved up in the voter turnout ranking to No. 35, a substantial improvement compared to the presidential election year. Our voter turnout rate of 39.8 percent was just slightly under the national average of 41 percent. Although fewer people voted here, the off-year drop in participation was much higher on the mainland.

At the same time, though, Hawaii ranked second to the bottom in the percent of eligible adults who were registered to vote, even with all the “deadwood” and other factors taken into account. Only Wyoming registered fewer of its citizens.

The bottom line? Differing measures and assumptions lead to sometimes conflicting assessments of just how well, or poorly, Hawaii is doing in encouraging active voter participation in elections. Compared to our own historical performance, we perhaps aren’t doing too badly, but compared to other parts of the U.S., we rank very low.

In the end, Hawaii’s record is just fair, at best, and embarrassingly bad, at worst.

Coming Tuesday: Kihei on Maui has the worst turnout in the state.