Most people strolling down Kalakaua Avenue at the annual Waikiki Spam Jam Festival in April probably weren’t thinking about politics. Regardless, Hawaii Office of Elections staff set up a booth hoping their “VOTER INFORMATION” sign would lure people in.
Staff members also popped up booths this year at the Filipino Festival, on university campuses and every month at the state’s ceremony for newly naturalized citizens.
Stop by a booth and you’d learn about ways to register, election dates and how to vote by mail. The Office of Elections also makes radio and television advertisements to educate voters about how to vote.
One thing you won’t hear from them: “Go vote.”
A get-out-the-vote effort would not be in line with the office’s mission, said elections office spokeswoman Nedielyn Bueno.
“It’s not on us. We can’t send out the message to go vote,” she said. “It’s important for folks to know how to do it, it’s up to the individual to know, ‘I’m ready to vote.’”
Another constraint: the office’s $234,000 voter education budget comes from federal dollars appropriated through the Help America Vote. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which oversees those funds, doesn’t allow them to be spent to promote voting, Bueno said.
The office has unsuccessfully requested state funds in the past to boost its voter education efforts, but even if the office got more money, it would be used to educate voters on how to vote, not on why voting is important, Bueno said.
State-sponsored get-out-the-vote efforts run the risk of appearing partisan, depending on which population the messaging targets, said Glenn Takahashi, the Honolulu City Clerk.
“That’s more of a campaigning kind of thing,” he said. “Government can’t tell each individual that, ‘This is relevant to you right now, so you should be doing this.’”
Instead, the government should work to make voting convenient and accessible, Takahashi said.
Voter registration in Hawaii has spiked in recent years thanks to online voter registration. And as of this year, eligible people can register as late as the day of an election. But turnout has stagnated for decades.
Just 38.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2018 primary in August. That was slightly better than the 2016 primary, which saw a record low turnout of 34.8 percent. Turnout was 58.3 percent for the 2016 general election.
A get-out-the-vote ad campaign woudn’t do much to chip away at the apathy residents have about elections, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.
“There’s really no evidence that making a more slick advertising campaign does anything to improve voter turnout,” he said. “The problem doesn’t lie in people’s ignorance of voting. It lies in the fact that they don’t really think their vote matters or think it’s their duty to vote. That’s not a problem the Office of Elections can solve for us.”
The office’s responsibility is to run fair and efficient election, Moore said, not to get people to vote.
Distributing an official voters’ guide with statements from candidates and summaries of ballot initiatives could encourage people to vote, said Corie Tanida, executive director of Common Cause, Hawaii. But state elections chief Scott Nago opposes the idea because he believes it borders on campaigning.
Tanida also said the onus lies on the general public to boost voter turnout. She encourages anyone who votes to make sure five friends or family members do the same, what she calls the “five friends rule.”
That’s a strategy the Office of Hawaiian Affairs encourages in its “Your vote is your voice” campaign this year, which features local comedian Pashyn Santos.
“I invited all my friends because I care about their futures too. We make it a day, we get together, we jam, we talk story,”Santos says in a get-out-the-vote video produced by OHA. “Voting is our kuleana and for us it’s a celebration honoring those who fought for us to have a voice.”
Standing in line to vote, Santos feeds a McDonald’s hash brown to a man with a plumeria behind his ear playing the ukulele. It makes voting look fun.
“Chee hoo,” Santos yells upon exiting a voting booth. A young woman emerges from a her own booth wearing a black hoodie and creates a triangle with her hands to show “WE ARE MAUNA KEA,” a catchphrase of the protests against a proposed telescope on the Big Island mountain, written on her palms.
Some political observers think systematic changes are needed to significantly boost civic engagement, changes that would take years to make and political will on the part of lawmakers.
A viable second party and more competitive candidates would bring people to the polls, they say. Republicans have only five members in the state House and none in the Senate. If only Democratic candidates win elections and the party’s candidates align on most issues, people feel the outcome will be the same no matter who they vote for, said Nancy Davlantes of the League of Women Voters.
Publicly financed political campaigns and multi-member legislative districts, in which two or more people can represent a single geographic area, might address concerns that special interests have undue sway over lawmakers.
Some European countries use fines or public shaming to get people to the polls, said Ngoc Phan, a political science professor at the Hawaii Pacific University. As a penalty for not voting in Italy, officials at one time posted lists of nonvoters outside of town halls.
Compulsory voting laws are outside the purview of the Office of Elections. So are most changes experts say would spark widespread political engagement.
“The problem is something the Office of Elections can’t help with, unless someone can prove a case that people are not aware that the election is happening,” Moore said.
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