It’s surprising that so many people vote in Hawaii, rather than so few.

A familiar low-turnout scolding here goes, “no vote no grumble.”

It may be fairer to say, “no vote no shame.”

Because when you come right down to it, there is almost no reason for people in Hawaii to vote in the 2018 mid-terms.

Makeup artist works on Gov David Ige before the iive gubernatorial debate with challenger Andria Tupuola at right.

Gov David Ige gets a cosmetic touch-up before his Monday night debate with state Rep. Andria Tupola, his Republican challenger who is far behind in the polls.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Georgia has an amazing governor’s race that’s too close to call. Same with Wisconsin. Nationally, there are crucial congressional  races that will likely determine which party controls the House of Representatives.

Hawaii? We have a governor’s race with the incumbent leading by three touchdowns.

I bet that you can’t even name Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s and Sen. Mazie Hirono’s GOP opponents, a couple of unknown guys named Ron and Brian.

Candidates in almost half of the state Senate races and one-third of the House districts are unopposed.

So that leaves a couple of Honolulu City Council races and other local contests on neighbor islands.

And maybe the ConCon vote, which is not likely to stir up that much interest.

The four counties each have charter amendments on the ballot. Did you even know this? You really think these are going to entice people to vote?

Plenty good reasons for ho hum, like it or not.

Why vote at all?

There are reasons, but they create not so pretty a picture. The reasons that seem most compelling and fundamental to some turn out to be un-motivating to others.

But the main problem is that what many take as an act of faith about voting and democracy is an unrealistic, gilded, overly optimistic view of how democracy works.

The most common grandiose argument for voting is this: voting is, as John Oliver put it recently in his wonderful takedown of the GOP’s voter suppression project, “the cornerstone of democracy.”

It’s the cornerstone because, as the great political scientist Robert Dahl wrote, democracy depends on political equality; that is, the right to have a vote regardless of your status.

As John Oliver put it, all of us have the right to vote, even idiots.

Voting is a rickety cornerstone because it has far less impact on accountability than the theory suggests. Elections do not produce responsive government.

Voting, in this view, is the essential lubricant of democracy. Voters drive the politicians by holding them accountable.

And the right to choose is exactly what the Republicans’ outrageous, sanctimoniously hypocritical voter suppression laws are trying to negate.

They are depriving people of a fundamental right.

But having the right is not the same as making it work effectively. The cornerstone rationale ignores that crucial difference.

Voting is a rickety cornerstone because it has far less impact on accountability than the theory suggests. Elections do not produce responsive government.

Citizens are not all that attentive to or informed about what politicians are actually doing.

More significantly, research has shown that over time there is almost no link between what people want and what Congress does or who it listens to.

Overall there are good reasons to be, as I am, a voter change-denier.

Other reasons for voting are less rational than emotional. They are about faith, and like lots of things involving faith, empirical evidence supporting the power of that faith may be beside the point. Example: the cornerstone argument itself.

That’s OK and even important, but it does make you consider democracy in a very different, less highfalutin way.

Here are some other reasons why people vote. They vote because over the years they have become attached to politics. They believe it makes a difference in their lives.

That is a key reason why older people are more likely to vote than young people.

People vote because others they know or respect do. One of the best ways to increase voter turnout is to tell a person that your neighbors vote and, as a little psychological frosting one the cake, tell them that information on whether they voted or not will be conveyed to the neighbors after the election.

And of course people vote because they are enthusiastic and/or angry. They see that they can effectively channel their anger by voting, often because their elections are competitive.

And that’s definitely not Hawaii in 2018.

And yet there I’ll be Tuesday at Niu Intermediate in line with the other old folks in shorts and slippers and parents with their young kids in tow waiting to cast my ballot.


Voting is a habit that’s engrained in me. If I did not vote, I would feel guilty, maybe even bereft. I probably would not tell my friends, all of whom are likely to cast a ballot.

That’s partially because despite my skepticism about the workings of democracy, I am still attached to voting’s rituals — like a person of religious faith whose clergy has done monstrously sad, awful things but who still believes in the ultimate power of the rituals of her church.

Voting is an act for me the same way I think prayer is — muddling and ambivalent, but I won’t or can’t let go.

Voting may not be a cornerstone, but for me it is an important ritual of democracy

That’s OK. But like other rituals, it is tempting to conflate belief in the power of voting with truth about its power.

There are ways to make America more democratic: limiting the influence of big money; reducing polarization; changing congressional rules to reduce the power of a few extremists.

As well as reducing economic inequality, because there is a powerful link between that and political inequality.

Those are really formidable challenges, but there are concrete ways to meet them.

But first off, you need to understand that the conventional myths about democracy and voting interfere with meeting those challenges.

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