Barbara Ankersmit tells a story that illustrates for her the difference in generations when it comes to engaging the populace.

Ankersmit, president of research at marketing and communications firm Anthology, said when she used to peek in on focus groups, she would find participants talking to each other and making social connections. They craved face-to-face time.

“Now, everyone is on their phone,” she said, admitting that she’s an “old fogey.”

Ankersmit’s analogy neatly answered the question posed at a talk Wednesday night in Kakaako: “If we love Hawaii so much, why don’t we vote?”

The answer, in no small part, is older people still vote but younger people are tuning out. Hawaii has gone from turnout in the 90th percentile in the 1960s to last in the nation in recent years.

From left, Pete Peterson, Barbara Ankersmit, Randy Perreira and Gina Mangieri talk voter turnout at Artistry Honolulu. Zócalo Public Square

How About All-Mail Voting?

Wednesday’s talk was sponsored by the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, Zócalo Public Square and Hawaii Public Radio.

Zócalo, part of Arizona State University’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, describes its mission as connecting “people to ideas and to each other by examining essential questions in an accessible, broad-minded, and democratic spirit.”

Gary Gill, who has dedicated much of his life to public service, had a few suggestions on improving turnout — like a unicameral Legislature for Hawaii. Zócalo Public Square

Wednesday’s talk pretty much did just that, although it was a smallish crowd and skewed to an older demographic.

While it suggested the likelihood of improving voter turnout is dim, possible solutions were proposed.

Like all-mail voting, for example. Ankersmit noted that a majority of Hawaii voters are already choosing to vote absentee.

(The Hawaii Legislature killed a bill to implement all-mail voting in the final days of conference committee in April, but there is talk that it will be revived in 2018.)

Another possibility is online voting. Panelist Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, warned that the software has yet to be cyber-proofed. Think of the Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Ankersmit, however, said online voting seems inevitable and noted that many of us already registered to vote online. And Peterson said that automatic voter registration when applying for a driver’s license has shown some success in increasing voter rolls.

For Randy Perreira, director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state’s largest union, civic engagement begins at home. He said his three kids all vote, even if they — like his own union members — don’t necessarily vote the way he’d like them too.

“When it starts at home, it matters,” he said.

But Perreira also lamented that his kids are not as informed on the issues as he is. That’s because civics is no longer a requirement in high schools.

Civic engagement: Audience members at the talk on voter turnout. Zócalo Public Square

Which leads to another challenge: Politicians need to talk about the issues in language that is understood by most people, and that is pertinent to their lives.

Instead of talking about, say, housing and traffic, frame the issues as “How can I move out of my parent’s house into my own apartment?” and “How can I stop spending an hour and a half going to and from work in traffic?”

Here’s a few more takeaways from the talk, which was ably moderated by KHON2 investigative reporter Gina Mangieri. 

  • Perreira said voter turnout is not a problem for HGEA, a public sector union, where roughly 90 percent of members are registered. What motivates his members to vote in a governor’s race, he said, is whether they like the people the incumbent appointed to be their bosses.
  • People vote for people, not necessarily issues or interests. Peterson, a Republican who works at a Christian university, said Bernie Sanders was an authentic candidate to many voters. He also said the U.S. is in an age of “outsiders,” which includes Sanders but also Donald Trump … whose authenticity, Peterson hinted, is being tested.
  • Voters don’t like it when they reach out to their elected leaders and don’t hear back. They’ll remember at election time. They also don’t like it when “the cake is baked,” that is, a decision has been made without their input.
  • Rail in Honolulu may be years behind schedule and approaching $10 billion, but Peterson noted that the high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco is barely 10 miles long after 10 years and has more than doubled in price to as much as $90 billion.
  • To Ankersmit’s earlier point about focus groups and smart phones, handheld devices may be changing for the worse the way people communicate. Peterson pointed to a study that younger generations raised on smartphones and tablets have lower levels of empathy and are unable to read body language.
  • Younger people are still interested in public office. Perreira said there will be a number of young candidates on local ballots next year.

This was my second Zócalo-Inouye talk. The first, held a few months back, was on whether Hawaii has the strongest sense of identity among the states. This one was better, which is encouraging, because there will be more such talks.

One gripe: I hate it when, during the Q&A session that follows, some audience members use their time to talk about themselves and their views rather than to ask questions.

But at least they had the gumption to turn out on a rainy Honolulu evening to talk about how to improve voter turnout in Hawaii.

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