Hawaii, a state known for low voter turnout, doesn’t do enough to encourage people to vote, say representatives of two good government organizations.
While many states distribute information pamphlets to voters with statements from candidates or summaries of ballot initiatives, Hawaii does not and has no plans to.
California, Washington and Oregon all produce voters’ pamphlets. In fact, Washington’s constitution requires the state to deliver a guide to every mailing address in the state, even if it doesn’t belong to a registered voter.
Hawaii hasn’t provided detailed explainers on proposed constitutional amendments since it was sued over one of its descriptions, according to the state elections chief, Scott Nago.
And it doesn’t plan on publishing candidate information because he believes to so do borders on campaigning.
The latest example of not sufficiently educating Hawaii voters, critics say, is the dearth of information released so far about the upcoming debut of same-day registration, also called Election Day registration. The new program allows people to register on the day of the Aug. 11 primary if they go to the appropriate polling place.
“They haven’t really acted like (same-day registration) was a big deal, and it is,” said Nancy Davlantes, president of the League of Women Voters of Honolulu.
Davlantes believes same-day registration could boost turnout. She lived in Wisconsin when the program took effect there and saw many new voters register for the first time.
The state says it’s waiting to kick off its public education campaign about same-day registration until after the July 12 deadline to advance-register for the primary.
“For us to do a regular campaign right now on same-day registration wouldn’t make sense because you can still register (in advance),” said state Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago.
The Office of Elections needs to do more to inform voters about election procedures and the candidates on the ballot, Davlentes said.
She pointed to California, which publishes statements written by candidates.
“People get overwhelmed seeing all these (campaign) signs and wondering, ‘Who are they?’” Davlantes said.
The League of Women Voters runs the website Vote411, partially to fill the information void, she said, adding it’s especially important to get educated for the upcoming primary.
In a state such as Hawaii where one political party dominates, elections are often decided in the primary when Democrats square off against each other.
“The primary is the big one,” said Davlantes. “I mean, that’s where everybody gets weeded out … The importance of the primary I think flies over people’s heads sometimes.”
Corie Tanida, head of Common Cause Hawaii, said the elections office appears to be more active this year with public outreach efforts, but could still do more.
“It would be wonderful if we had some kind of voting guide,” Tanida said. “I can’t tell you how many calls I get each election season from new people coming to our state” looking for candidate information.
Providing more information on candidates or ballot items may not be the fix to Hawaii’s low voter turnout, Tanida said, but it may help people understand the issues.
She pointed to the 2016 charter amendment guide published by the Honolulu Charter Commission, which broke down the implications of each proposed amendment. It attempted to simplify the questions, but was still wonky and could have been more helpful, she said.
Explaining proposed changes to constitutional amendments is a no-go for the elections office because it’s hard to explain the issues fairly, Nago said.
The office used to provide pamphlets with pro and con information, but stopped after a 2004 lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that the state failed to follow constitutionally mandated guidelines on the process to put a constitutional amendment regarding criminal prosecution on the ballot.
The ACLU also argued that the elections office published misinformation about the constitutional amendment, but the Supreme Court didn’t address that claim because it determined the state erred in putting the amendment on the ballot.
Don’t expect candidate information from the elections office site anytime soon either.
“It’s one of those things where it really borders on campaigning, you know, when you start distributing candidate information,” Nago said. “It’s not something we’ve considered for the near future and I’m not sure if we would consider in the distant future.”
The elections office has a $234,000 budget for public education efforts including TV, radio and social media ads, said spokeswoman Nedielyn Bueno.
The office organizes community outreach efforts at events across the islands, from the annual Spam Jam street festival in Waikiki to farmers markets. It provides information about voting and elections, and offers the opportunity to register, she said.
An additional 8,000 people have already 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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