Should Hawaii’s low voter turnout in state and federal elections justify an equally low bar for the approval of a new Native Hawaiian government that could remake the social, economic, and political landscape of the state?

That’s exactly what the proposed Department of the Interior rules for “Procedures for Reestablishing a Formal Government-to-Government Relationship With the Native Hawaiian Community” would do.

Instead of setting a higher than normal bar for approving a plan for a Native Hawaiian government in a historic election with major ramifications both locally and nationally, the new rules propose adjusting the number of votes needed to ultimately approve a governing document to reflect the generally low island turnout.

“Adjusting” in this case means lowering the number of votes needed to approve a new Native Hawaiian government and trigger negotiations with the federal government.

Adjusting for low turnout

There’s no escaping the fact that most Hawai residents don’t vote, and the number of voters has been falling relatively steadily, election by election.

Only 52.3 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters cast ballots in 2014, despite the heightened interest in the race for governor that ended with the surprising ouster of Gov. Neil Abercrombie. And that number represented just 36.5 percent of eligible voters, according to an analysis by the United States Elections Project, which has tracked election turnout across the country over time.

According to the Department of the Interior’s notice, published in the Federal Record, the proposed rule includes “a requirement that the turnout in the ratification referendum be sufficiently large to demonstrate broad-based community support.”

Even if a high percentage of those voting approved the new Hawaiian government document, this would not be meaningful if turnout were low, the rule recognizes.

“The proposed rule focuses not on the number of voters who participate in the ratification referendum, but rather on the number who vote in favor of the governing document,” the public notice states.

How low is too low?

It’s hard not to fuzz out while reading through the fine print where data on the Hawaiian population, and the expected number of expected voters, are recited.

The 2010 census counted about  527,000 Native Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians nationwide, including some 290,000 in Hawaii.

The census found about 65 percent of these were old enough to vote (18 years or older), meaning that there would be about 342,000 Hawaiians nationally of voting age, and about 188,000 in Hawaii.

At this point, the Department of the Interior proposal makes a key assumption by adjusting the number of expected voters “for typical turnout levels in elections in the State of Hawaii.”

Voter turnout of all registered voters in Hawaii was 61.9 percent in 2012, a presidential election year, and fell to 52.3 percent in 2014 during the gubernatorial election.

Based on these  numbers, the Interior Department goes on to adjust the expected turnout of Hawaiian voters in an election to ratify a new governmental entity to between 60,000 and 100,000.

The rule proposes that if the new Hawaiian government garners a majority of all votes cast, and exceeds 50,000, it will be reasonable to conclude that the plan has broad-based support among Hawaiians. Based on that conclusion, the Secretary of the Interior would give the go-ahead to begin negotiations with the new Hawaiian governing entity.

On the other hand, if the majority vote in favor of the new government is less than 30,000, it would be reasonable to conclude that it lacked widespread community support, and the department would decline to enter into negotiations.

And approval by anything between 30,000 and 50,000 Hawaiian voters would presumably leave the decision at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.

Using these figures, the proposed Hawaiian government would need approval of just a little more than one out of four adult Hawaiians living in the State of Hawaii (26.5%) , and just 15 percent of all adult Hawaiians in the U.S. as a whole, to be seen as a success with “considerable” community support.

The lower limit of at least 30,000 votes for approval would theoretically allow federal approval of the new government as long as at least 16% of those living in Hawaii, or just 9% of all adult Hawaiians in the U.S. as a whole, approve the measure.

And even those modest minimum voter requirements don’t apply to the current election for delegates. Presumably the aha will go forward even if voter turnout is well below these levels.

To those who support Na’i Aupuni and its process for carrying out a constitutional convention, these low requirements may offer some confidence that the effort won’t collapse for lack of required support. However, those who want to hold out for some form of full independence will see it as further proof that the process is being rigged against them.

Comments on the proposal are being accepted until the end of the year.

From the Federal Register Notice:

You may submit comments by either of the methods listed below. Please use Regulation Identifier Number 1090–AB05 in your message.

  1. Use the Federal eRulemaking portal Follow the instructions on the Web site for submitting and viewing comments. The rule has been assigned Docket ID DOI– 2015–0005.
  2. Email your comments. Include the number 1090–AB05 in the subject line.
  3. Send them via U.S. mail, courier, or hand delivery: Office of the Secretary, Department of the Interior, Room 7228, 1849 C Street NW., Washington, DC 20240.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.