Hawaii has become well known for its low voter turnout, but is it really that low?

There’s a couple of ways to measure voter turnout. Some say the formula that the state Office of Elections uses inflates voter turnout, while others have said it may make turnout look worse than it is.

Hawaii’s voter turnout in the last general election was as high as 58 percent or as low as 43 percent, depending on which method you prefer.

One voter in an open air booth at Kalani High School Primary Day 8.9.14
This voter had plenty of elbow room to cast his ballot at Kalani High School. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The way we define turnout affects more than just island residents’ reputation for not showing up at the polls.

It’s also the difference between saying the fateful question of statehood was approved in 1959 in an election with a turnout of 84 percent of registered voters, or a turnout of less than half of those who were eligible to vote (but not necessarily registered).

“I think when people look at that (state) statistic, they assume … there was an overwhelming support for statehood and that was not the case,” said Arnie Saiki, a researcher for the blog Statehood Hawaii. “People did not come out in droves to vote for statehood.”

The State’s Way

Hawaii, like most states, measures turnout by comparing the number of people who cast ballots to the number of people who are registered to vote.

“You need to know your total population of voters, which is your registered voters, and of that, how many turned out to vote,” said Scott Nago, head of the state elections office.

Turnout among Hawaii voters in the 2016 general election was 58 percent by that metric. About 80 percent of voters registered in California, Oregon and Washington participated in the 2016 election.

office of elections voter registration notice
A yellow voter registration notice, such as this one from Honolulu County, is sent to voters before every election. Courtesy: Hawaii Office of Elections

This method can make Hawaii’s turnout look even lower than it is because the number of voters who cast ballots are compared to all registered voters, including some who may have moved away. The elections office must continually purge, or remove, names of people who have moved, died or gone to prison, but it doesn’t always get everyone.

Prior to the 2014 general election, then-state Sen. David Ige told Civil Beat that his legislative campaign team routinely identified more people who should be removed from the voter list than election officials had purged.

Up to 7 percent of the names on Hawaii voter rolls are on an “inactive list.” People are placed on this list if a yellow mailer that’s sent to voters before every election bounces back. The card is forwardable, so it will still be delivered even if that person changes their address.

People on the inactive list can still vote, but their names are purged if notices bounce back two consecutive times.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last week paved the way for states to use more aggressive systems of purging people from voter rolls. The court upheld Ohio’s system of removing voters after they fail to vote in a few consecutive elections and don’t respond to a notice from election officials.

Hawaii doesn’t use failure to vote as a trigger for purging a voter’s name.

Another Way To Look At It

Some worry that a lack of aggressive purging of voter rolls makes turnout appear worse than it is, but Hawaii’s turnout is far lower by another metric that compares the number of people who cast ballots to the total number of  adults who are eligible to vote, even if they aren’t registered.

It’s better to use this method when comparing voter turnout between states, political scientists say, because states have different methods of purging voter rolls or registering voters, which can skew turnout results based on registration.

“But of course because we’re Hawaii, we have to take it with a grain of salt because of our large military population and those kind of factors,” said Corie Tanida, head of Common Cause Hawaii, of efforts to measure voter turnout by looking at a state’s eligible population.

Hawaii’s voter turnout in the 2016 general election by this metric was 43 percent, the lowest in the nation, according to a U.S. Elections Project analysis. It was 17 percentage points lower than the national average, according to that metric.

Turnout among registered voters has significantly dwindled over the years, according to the state elections office, but roughly the same percentage of people who are eligible to vote have continued to participate.

Rewriting History?

According to the elections site, 84 percent of the 174,000 registered voters participated in the 1959 primary election. The statehood question was attached to that ballot.

But only about 40 percent of Hawaii’s eligible population participated in the vote for statehood, according to Saiki’s research.

Saiki said he conducted personal interviews indicating many nonvoters didn’t want to participate in the statehood vote because they didn’t recognize Hawaii as an American territory.

The elections office statistic of 84 percent turnout is “really the state’s attempt to legitimize its administration over Hawaii,” Saiki said. “I do think that in many ways, the question of Hawaii’s statehood … could be legally questioned.”

The elections office site shows a slightly higher number of voters participated in the election than are reflected in Statehood Hawaii figures.

Saiki’s research focused on the statehood vote, but many voters ignored that question on the primary ballot.

“The fact that a percentage (of people casting ballots) would just choose not even to give an option I think itself is telling,” he said.

Ngoc Phan, assistant professor of political science at Hawaii Pacific University, said she’s researching how voting laws may have had an impact on historical turnout. In 1850, voting was reserved for men 20 or older who had lived in Hawaii at least one year, she said. An 1864 policy placed property, income, literacy and ethnic requirements on voters.

Primaries Matter

No matter how you calculate voter turnout in the Aloha State, it’s pretty low.

Voter turnout also tends to be lower in midterm elections when presidential candidates aren’t on the ballot, Phan said. Turnout could be higher for Democrats in this primary, she said, since there are competitive candidates running for multiple offices.

Phan, who moved to Hawaii about a year ago, said she’s lived all over the nation but has been struck by the state’s low voter turnout. People who are young, low-income and move frequently are less likely to register, she said. The fact that the Democratic Party dominates local politics could have an impact on turnout too.

It’s typical across all states that only the most passionate voters turn out to vote in the primary, Phan said.

“At face value, it’s quite problematic — a small number of enthusiasts decide who all of us get to vote for,” she said.

Tanida of Common Cause agreed.

“It is disappointing that a small minority is making decisions for the majority,” said Tanida, adding, “This is how special interests take power, because … they have the money and resources to swoop in when you’re not there.”

Fewer than half of registered voters will turn out to vote, if previous primaries are any indication. An additional 8,000 people have registered to vote since the last primary in 2016, bringing the total to about 735,000 — about 70 percent of Hawaii residents who are able to vote.

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