More Hawaii residents have registered to vote this year than ever before.

The ease of online registration, offered for the first time in Hawaii this election cycle, might explain the increase in the total electorate to 749,917 (as of Oct. 10, the deadline for online and mail-in registration).

“It doesn’t sound like much,” said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii, “but compared to having to print out the form and mail it in, it significantly decreases the burden.”

Jana Purington, 22 years old, grew up on Oahu but moved to Oregon for college. She moved back to the islands recently and registered to vote for in Hawaii for the first time this year, hoping to become more engaged in local elections.
Jana Purington, 22, grew up on Oahu but moved to Oregon for college. She returned to the islands recently and registered to vote in Hawaii for the first time this year. Natanya Friedheim/ Civil Beat

It remains to be seen if the increase in registrants translates to more people actually casting ballots in Tuesday’s general election — historically that has not been the case in Hawaii.

“You’re not making voting any easier,” said political analyst Neal Milner said. “You’re making it easier to register.”

Hawaii’s overall electorate hasn’t changed much since 2010. In the last four election cycles, women have made up a higher percent of registrants than men. This year, women made up almost 60 percent of new registered voters in the 18-29 age group.

“Women have a lot of stake in this election.” — Meda Chesney-Lind

Jana Purington is one of them.

“Coming home I realized how little I knew about the goings-on in the city and county,” said Purington, who grew up on Oahu but went to college in Oregon. She registered to vote in Hawaii for the first time since moving back.

“When we have rants around the dinner table, so much of that is about local stuff that goes on,” she said. “I wanted to be able to try at least to have more of a say of what goes on.”

People 19-29 have always constituted the smallest voter age group in Hawaii. Their percentage of the total electorate fell from 2010 to 2014, but rose slightly this year.

People over 65 continue to make up the highest percentage of registered voters in the state, according to data from 2010 to 2016. The trend continues as this year the number of registered voters over 65 increased by about 10 percent from 2014, a higher percent increase than any other age group.

About 11 percent of registrants for the general election are on the “failsafe” list, meaning they haven’t voted in two election cycles. They might have moved, died or gone to prison since the last election — or they’re just not bothering to vote — but are kept on roles until the state’s counties can confirm whether they should be purged.

Nationwide, voter registration and turnout rates usually increase during presidential election years, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports. The high-profile national election draws more people to the polls.

But political analysts Milner and Moore don’t think that explains this year’s spike in Hawaii’s voter registration.

“Locally, the races haven’t been that exciting. Even the mayoral race has been rather blasé.” — Alex Santiago

“The presidential election has not really touched this place at all,” Milner said.

Instead, they credit the new option of online registration.

Social media has helped as well.

In September, Facebook featured a landing page linking its users to their state’s online voting registration application.

“That was probably the most effective get-out-the-vote initiative I’ve ever seen,” said Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi, who’s been working in Hawaii’s elections since 1992. He said that typically 1,600 new registrants are added to voter roles statewide every month. Within four days of the Facebook campaign, Takahashi saw 4,000 to 5,000 new registrations.

Other states saw comparable increases as a result of the Facebook voter registration initiative.

Historically, spikes in Hawaii’s voter registration rates have coincided with changes in the registration process. But making it easier to register doesn’t mean people will actually vote.

None of the top three highest increases in registration – in 1972, 1996, and 1998 – resulted in significantly higher turnout rates.

In 1972, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Voter registration in Hawaii increased by about 16 percent – the highest increase in the state’s history. But turnout actually decreased slightly from the previous election.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

In 1996 and 1998, registration increased from the previous election year by 12 and 11 percent respectively. Neither year saw significantly higher turnout rates.

The spikes were likely effects of the National Voter Registration Act, Takahashi said. Passed by Congress in 1993, the act requires states to offer citizens an opportunity to register when applying for or renewing a driver’s license and at various public assistance offices.

In 2018, the state will offer same-day registration thanks to House Bill 2590, which was signed into law in 2014.

In 2010, people over 65 made up 22 percent of registered voters. This year, they make up 26 percent.

“The population here has gotten older,” Milner said, “and old people are more likely to vote.”

The state’s Office of Elections also has outreach initiatives at care and nursing homes, reminding Hawaii’s senior citizens they can both register and vote through the mail.

“Hawaii’s kupuna are more involved in the political system,” says Alex Santiago, program director for No Vote No Grumble, a nonpartisan civic engagement initiative. “They are probably most afraid of what may happen if they’re not involved.”


People dependent on Medicare and pension funds become involved, he explained, because they are more dependent on the government for these programs.

Young people are generally less involved in local and national elections, a trend typical across the U.S.

In Hawaii, the number of people 18-29 on the state’s voter roles decreased between 2010 and 2014, as more failsafe registrants were purged from the list than new registrants added.

“College students are a group that typically doesn’t vote,” said Nicole Brodie of Kanu Hawaii, a local nonprofit with get-out-to-vote initiatives. “They think that their vote doesn’t matter.”

“That was probably the most effective get-out-the-vote initiative I’ve ever seen.” — Glen Takahashi, Honolulu city clerk, referring to a Facebook voter registration push

This year has been different. Of the 43,027 new registered voters, 8,455 people – or 20 percent of the total – were in the 18-29 age group.

“That’s the Bernie bump,” Brodie said, referring to former Democratic presidential candidate and current Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign appealed to younger voters.

Fifty-nine percent of this election year’s new registrants in the 18-29 ages group are women.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii, attributes this to the rising levels of academic achievement among women.

“If you look at college enrollment, women are now the majority of our students in college, well over 50 percent,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that young women are more civically engaged than their male counterparts.”

Chesney-Lind said 55.9 percent of the University of Hawaii’s student body this school year is female.

In every election cycle since 2010, women of all age groups have consistently made up 52 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters, but only 49 percent of the state’s total population of voting-aged citizens, according to census data.

Chesney-Lind also offered explanations specific to this year’s presidential election.

“Women have a lot of stake in this election,” she said. One candidate might be the country’s first female president while the other has “expressed misogynistic attitudes.”

Interest in local elections is hard to gauge, but record low turnout at this year’s primary suggests people aren’t that engaged.

“Locally, the races haven’t been that exciting” Santiago said. “Even the mayoral race has been rather blasé.”

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