Every election year in Hawaii one hears the same complaint and refrain from TV anchors and analysts, print reporters and pundits: Why is Hawaii’s voter turnout so low?

They love to roll out the statistics: According to Civil Beat’s own reporting, in 2018’s primary election on Saturday, 38.6 percent of voters participated. That comes down to 286,041 voters in general — 106,963 voting Saturday alone. This is higher than 2016 in 252, 725 people voted — 156,579 by absentee ballots.

They love to note that voter turnout has declined longitudinally over a period of decades. Going back to the statehood year of 1959, voter totals in elections have moved inexorably downward and backward with some exceptions (notably 1978).

They love to hold forth like disappointed schoolmarms teaching their version of a civics course and pontificate about how important it is for people to turn out in large numbers and take part in the process.

My response: Who cares?

Voter precinct volunteers Tyler Maruno, left, and Letitia Corpuz, center, help Matt Coleman, right, holding his daughter Natalee, sign-in before voting at Lanakila Elementary School, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, in Honolulu.
Voter precinct volunteers Tyler Maruno, left, and Letitia Corpuz, center, help Matt Coleman, right, holding his daughter Natalee, sign in before voting Saturday at Lanakila Elementary School. Eugene Tanner

As a former freelance journalist of 20-plus years who covered elections at times during my career, I have found the constant whining about voter turnout to be a strange and fruitless waste of time.

Any candidate for electoral office or incumbent politician has to win a race and an election based on the votes they have and the votes they can get as opposed to the number of votes they would like to have. You cannot win a race thinking about votes you can’t have outside of registered vote totals and likely numbers of actual voters both same day and absentee. It makes no logical sense.

Customer Service

Take for an example a business’s website. Say the site gets 500 people a day visiting. However, only 50 people make a purchase every day. What should your priority be — to only think about the 450 people who visited but didn’t buy or the 50 who did? Logic would suggest the 50. If you treat them right as customers and provide good service, they will likely do business with you again.

By contrast, focusing exclusively on the 450 who didn’t buy from you is a waste of time. Granted, some measure of analysis as to why they didn’t buy from your business is valid, but in the end, it’s not worth investing lots of precious time. After all, you are getting money from the 50 customers and nothing from the 450 browsers.

Therefore, when writers and pundits focus on low voter turnout, they are in essence wasting valuable time and effort. It is fine to note voter turnout numbers, but emphasizing people who didn’t show up and chose to not to take part strikes me as the complete and total opposite of encouraging people to take part in elections.

Notice that there is minimal emphasis on those who do come out to vote.

I would argue this is negative reinforcement rather than positive reinforcement. When newspapers and TV stations keep stating election year after election year, low turnout this year and hardly anybody is coming out to vote, it just encourages people to think “yeah, it’s not worth it to vote.”

Notice that there is minimal emphasis on those who do come out to vote. Beyond the Vox Pop B-roll interviews of voters leaving polls telling reporters who they voted for or what the experience was like, there is little focus on the positives of voting and on coming out to vote.

Consider that the 38.6 percent of voters who did come to the polls is not seen as a good thing but automatically as bad. It is as if these people who actually did come out and choose candidates are relatively unimportant. This is sort of like a potential employer telling an applicant, “you are stupid and uneducated but I will hire you for this position anyway.”

It should be remembered that voting is a voluntary process based on whether an individual sees a need to participate. This is not a mandate nor required and people have careers and jobs, spouses and families that they need to deal with. They thus need to be incentivized.

In the end, arguing people should vote because voter turnout is low is like advertising a restaurant to consumers by emphasizing its bad food and terrible service. Not a bright idea.

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