It should come as no surprise that those who suffer the most from the failures of elected leadership are often the ones who vote the least.
Hawaii, which habitually fares poorly in categories such as worst place to start a business, worst place for teachers and least amount of sleep in the nation, also enters Election 2018 on a losing streak for being dead last for voter turnout.
Like Buffalo Bills fans explaining why they never win the Super Bowl, there are no shortage of complex theories as to why Hawaii voters can’t or won’t show up to the polls. The answer is more likely that locals have such an abysmally low confidence in their local government that they feel their vote doesn’t matter.
According to the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center’s statewide survey conducted over the summer, only 6 percent of locals said they trusted state and county government to act in the public interest all the time. This runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: We believe and act as though things can’t change, so in the end, they really don’t change.
When locals are confronted with incompetent politicians, failure in government or a worsening overall quality of life in the islands, more often than not they simply say “lucky we live Hawaii” and accept the decline as part of life in the islands.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to surf between college classes, enjoy a rainbow shave ice after work, or even watch the fireworks show every Friday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but the cost of ignoring civic duty in exchange for tropical paradise is slowly turning our state into hell on earth.
“Lucky we live Hawaii” is our aloha-sanitized way of saying “dammit” and writing off chronic problems as permanently intractable. We resign ourselves to believing that our state’s direction is determined in a black box controlled by unions, party bosses and special interests that are somehow untouchable. This cop-out mindset frustrates progress and handcuffs the few people actually working for reform, because it distorts the way public policymakers see the population they represent.
Elected officials have no incentive to be accountable, transparent or proactive if they are constantly rewarded with re-election by a demoralized electorate. As Emmanuel Macron famously warned, “When politics is no longer a mission but a profession, politicians become more self-serving than public servants.”
What would Hawaii be like if voters treated every contest, every question, and every chance to vote as a referendum on our standard of living?
Minorities stay minorities by staying home when they should be voting. The difference between four out of 10 versus nine out of 10 Hawaii residents voting could be the separation between a Democratic Party-dominated Hawaii or a state run by a coalition of multiple parties forced to work together.
Republicans already got a short-lived beta test of this concept in 2012 when they partnered with then-Rep. Joseph Souki’s speaker faction in exchange for vice chairmanships on three prominent standing committees. Why should this be an exception, rather than the norm?
Think about all the contests where blank votes exceeded the number of cast votes for the winning candidate. What would Hawaii be like if voters treated every contest, every question and every chance to vote as a referendum on our standard of living? How representative, let alone efficient, would our local government be if voters punished incumbents for failing to deliver promises or side-stepping the will of the electorate?
Cynics say Hawaii is too kapakahi to ever change, and that challenging the ruling class has been tried to no noticeable effect for half a century. I don’t buy that for one moment. There are far more repressive regimes abroad that have seen reforms come simply from people making the courageous decision to just show up and vote.
In the summer of 2000, I was a junior at the University of Texas at San Antonio and part of my undergraduate degree required me to take a class studying the politics of Mexico. At the time, Mexico had been dominated for 71 years by the same party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and that year, Vicente Fox was running for president under the minority banner of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN).
Our professor, who was a Latin American expert, as well as nearly every political pundit tracking the election was almost certain that PAN would be soundly defeated as it had been for decades. But something different happened that year – Mexicans got tired of being told how to vote and what to think, and they finally broke the mold by electing Fox.
Despite a history of rampant fraud, oppression and even assassination, the entrenched political establishment lost big in Mexico’s election of 2000. I never forgot that moment, because it impressed upon me as a young man that if Mexico could vote to change her history, we who enjoy so many freedoms here in America should see every election as an opportunity to refresh our democratic experiment.
It’s been said that the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Here’s the cold, hard truth: Democracy is a garbage-in, garbage-out model of governance.
For too long in Hawaii we have waited for someone to come along and inspire us to do the right thing. We have blamed our problems on a lack of quality choices, but we have refused to make the most important choice of being counted in an election.
If we don’t show up this time, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
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