Hawaii’s infamously low voter turnout may not be quite as bad as it seems.

That’s because thousands of people who are still on the registered voter list have moved, gone to prison or died since the last election, lowering the overall turnout percentages published by the state Office of Elections in any given year.

Heading into the Nov. 4 general election, the state has identified 626,431 people as “active” on its master list of 706,890 registered voters.

Voting booths are lined up and ready for voters to cast their ballots at Kawananakoa Middle School on August 9, 2014

Voting booths are lined up and ready for voters to cast their ballots at Kawananakoa Middle School, Aug. 9, 2014.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Officials put 80,459 people — 11 percent of the overall total — on their “failsafe” list, a sort of holding period that keeps them registered as voters while the counties confirm whether they should be purged from the voter rolls.

In the Aug. 9 primary, just 42 percent of 697,033 registered voters cast ballots. If 11 percent of the total registered voters could have been purged, the turnout would have been 47 percent — still not great, but better. And it’s still likely among the worst voter turnout in the nation.

Some suspect there could be more dead weight on the voter rolls than elections officials identify — possibly even twice as much. 

State Sen. David Ige, who’s been in elected office since 1986, said his campaign team routinely identifies 15 percent to 20 percent of the names on the voter registration list as people who no longer live or vote in that district. 

“I believe that part of the turnout numbers is understated because we have people who are still identified as a registered voter who really are not,” he told Civil Beat. 

“I’m certain that they’re not dead, but my guess is a lot of them have moved away.”

Active Versus Failsafe Voters

This graph shows the number of active versus failsafe voters that county elections officials have identified for the 2014 general election. Source: Civil Beat graph based on data from Honolulu Elections Division

Ige flags people on the voter list using the same method that federal law prescribes. If they haven’t voted in the past four elections — counting both primary and general elections — they are put on the failsafe list.

The difference is that Ige — like many of the other candidates who use this technique to maximize the use of their resources — can simply purge those voters from the list immediately whereas elections officials aren’t legally allowed to remove voters based on that standard.

It’s a pretty safe bet though.

“Voting is a habit like flossing. You either do it or you don’t.” — Matt Fitch, polling expert

Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which does election polling for Civil Beat, said people who vote typically vote in well over 80 percent of elections, making it very unlikely that someone would go inactive for a few years and then start voting again.

“Voting is a habit like flossing,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t.”

Fitch has noticed campaigns narrowing down their voter lists in different ways for the past 20 years.

“You get way more bang for the buck that way,” he said. “But it has a dark side.

“People who haven’t developed a habit of voting get excluded from mailings, phone calls and other canvasses,” Fitch said. “It accentuates a self-fufilling prophecy so that our under-50 turnout is terrible and getting worse. That, in turn, frames public debate. The campaigns talk about Medicare and Social Security. They talk very little about the ridiculous unemployment rate for new college grads.”

Unlike campaigns that purge voters from their lists as they see fit, elections officials take the extra step of mailing a letter to voters — once put on the failsafe list after not voting in two consecutive federal election cycles — essentially trying to determine if they still live in that precinct.

Sometimes those letters come back with updated voter information after being forwarded to new addresses. Other times they get returned as non-deliverable, which lets officials then remove them from the list.

Registered Voters Versus Turnout

This chart shows the total voter registration and turnout numbers in Hawaii general elections from 1992 to 2014. Source: Civil Beat chart based on Hawaii Elections Office data

Hawaii seems to have improved its practice of removing “deadwood,” as Honolulu Elections Administrator Glen Takahashi called it, from its voter rolls.

The state did a massive purge of its voter registration list in 2003, eliminating almost 104,000 names. Since then, it’s been kept in a more timely and consistent manner, officials said.

The state Department of Health sends monthly reports to the counties letting them know who died so they can be promptly removed from the voter registration lists, Kauai Elections Administrator Lyndon Yoshioka said, adding that the counties receive a similar list of convicted felons who are no longer eligible to vote.

“It’s really important to have valid numbers,” he said. 

Takahashi said his office wipes off 30,000 to 40,000 names from Honolulu’s list on average after each election, a process that usually happens in February.

The county’s rolls may be a little inflated, generally anywhere from 8 to 13 percent, but he chalked that up to the transient nature of the community. 

Hawaii is indeed a transient place, both within the state and in terms of people coming and going from the mainland and other countries. There’s a steady trend of fewer people who are born in Hawaii, staying in Hawaii.

In 1960, a year after Hawaii became a state, 79 percent of people born in Hawaii lived in Hawaii. In 2012, this had dropped to 60 percent. But it’s difficult to determine how that plays out in the voter registration list.

Transient Honolulu Graph

This U.S. Census Bureau map shows the net migration flows for Honolulu County from 2008 to 2012.

U.S. Census

The percent of voters currently on the failsafe list is consistent throughout the state. Honolulu, Hawaii and Kauai counties each identified 11 percent of their overall voter rolls as inactive. Maui was a tad higher at 13 percent.

The problem of purging voter registration lists is not unique to Hawaii.

In 2011, Detroit had more registered voters in the city than people who were eligible to vote. 

So while turnout may actually be several percent higher than the state Office of Elections reports, it’s still not the reason Hawaii ranks so low nationally.

University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald has studied voter turnout rates for years. He has compiled spreadsheets dating back to 2000 that compare voter turnout by state, but he doesn’t use voter registration lists as the basis in part because they are so problematic due to the purging issue.

“No matter how you calculate it, Hawaii has pretty crappy turnout.” — Kathy Frankovic, public research expert

Instead, he looks at voter turnout as a percent of the voter-eligible population or voting-age population. 

For Hawaii, the voting-eligible population is 1.01 million and the voting-age population is 1.11 million. This doesn’t factor in the large number of military personnel who live in Hawaii but vote in other states, which McDonald said is a known error that he hasn’t found a good solution for yet.

McDonald said the voter registration lists are important for elections offices to maintain as accurately as possible because it helps them conduct elections more efficiently. But when it comes to voter turnout, he said it’s better to look at it through the other factors.

In the 2012 general election, Hawaii’s turnout was 44 percent using the voter-eligible population.   This is far lower than the 62 percent voter turnout the Office of Elections reported, which was based on total registration.

Kathy Frankovic, a Hilo resident who used to run CBS News’ election night desk, said Hawaii’s low voter turnout can’t be blamed on how the state maintains its voter registration list.

“Registration lists are out of date pretty much everywhere in the world,” she said, noting how she still gets a card every year from New York letting her know where her polling place is even though she hasn’t voted there in 15 years.

“No matter how you calculate it, Hawaii has pretty crappy turnout,” she said.

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