Our country is founded on the principle that our democracy is of and by the people. In order to honor that ideal we must have a system that allows for maximum participation in the democratic process.

That’s why over the past few years Common Cause Hawaii and partner groups like Faith Action for Community Equity and the League of Women Voters of Hawaii have led the fight to reform antiquated policies that restrict citizens’ right to vote in Hawaii, and championed important updates to our voter registration system. Online voter registration became law in 2012 and late registration — which would allow citizens to register and vote on the Election Day became law in 2014. Both take effect in 2016.

Now it’s time to go further.

Man casting his ballot at Kalani High School Primary Day 8.9.14

Voting at Kalani High School.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Common Cause Hawaii and FACE applauds Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran and Rep. Karl Rhodes for introducing legislation (Senate Bill 150 and House Bill 401) to enhance voter registration at the Department of Transportation, as is required under federal law. These bills have caught our attention as an innovative approach that would help to streamline the voter registration process.

Under the original proposals, everyone whom the DOT knows to be eligible to vote ought to be identified and automatically registered to vote by our elections officials, after being given an opportunity to decline registration. The original bills introduced by Senator Keith-Agaran and Representative Rhodes to establish automatic voter registration would mean that Hawaii could potentially see a voter registration rate of 90 percent or higher, based on estimates from other democracies that use similar systems. (This is a best case scenario; other factors and reforms contributed to this.)

This “Motor Voter Automatic Registration” policy reform could boost registration in underrepresented communities and capture nearly every eligible citizen in the state. This program would complement Online Voter Registration and Late Registration, and make Hawaii a “model state” for voter registration access in the country.

Sadly, both bills have been watered down to the point that they do little to enhance our voter registration process.

Hawaii is in crisis when it comes to citizen participation. Our voter turnout has consistently decreased – from 94 percent of registered voters in 1959, when the state first started collecting elections data, to 52 percent in most recent mid-term election. We ranked last in the country for voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election.

Worse still is that a disproportionate number of eligible voters who are low-income workers, of Polynesian ancestry, and younger people actually cast a ballot. Turning the trend around requires us to continue improving voter registration, the greatest barrier eligible voters have to the casting a ballot.

Hawaii’s low voter participation rate and unnecessary barriers are harming the health of our local democracy. Many people can remember when Hawaii was governed by a small group of business elites. We know firsthand the way oligarchy stifles the dreams and aspirations of Hawaii’s people, which is why we are committed to strengthening our democracy — so that we don’t go back to the days when so much power was given to so few.

Yet our low voter participation threatens exactly that situation. By some measurements, our entire nation is already falling into a more oligarchic form of government. A recent Princeton study that caught a lot of attention last year says we are already there.

Common Cause Hawaii and FACE strongly believe in reasserting the value of democratic decision making. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the right vote and the means to become a registered voter.

Hawaii should enact automatic voter registration. In doing so, Hawaii can easily become a model for voter registration access in the country.

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