Hawaiian political activity has been consistently growing and evolving over the last few years. In the past few election cycles, Hawaiians have rallied around “no vote, no grumble” or similar Hawaiian voting campaigns that target increasing the numbers of Hawaiian voters.

Yet, something unique is potentially on the horizon this year.

The unique tenor of Mauna Kea, which has consistently held fast to aloha and non-violence, has created a particularly fertile political ecosystem for Hawaiians. Specifically, there are large grassroots communities that appear not only willing, but eager, to vote in the upcoming 2020 elections.

People cast their vote at Benjamin Parker Elementary School cafeteria in Kaneohe. 11 aug 2018
This is a new opportunity to elevate the role of Hawaiians in a real political force, but will require Hawaiians to become a mindful voting block. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is a new, potentially exciting opportunity to elevate the role of Hawaiians in a real political force, but will require Hawaiians to become a mindful voting block. This potential elevation is about much more than just voting, it is about identifying and agreeing on issues important to Hawaiians.

This is where the Office of Hawaiian Affairs plays an important role. It recently sent out a survey to beneficiaries seeking input on identifying priorities within the Hawaiian community. Hopefully, OHA will share the results broadly, because the results become a critical opportunity for Hawaiians to begin to rally around specific political issues, like affordable housing, health care, or education.

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This step forward also provides an important response to entities like the University of Hawaii, whose leadership has been critical so that Hawaiians who have been willing to heavily engage in issues like the TMT. But UH appeared less concerned about broader issues impacting the Hawaiian community.

It is simply incorrect to think that Hawaiians, like many others in the state, are not deeply concerned about affordable housing, livable wages and education — of course Hawaiians care. What remains more challenging and elusive is what “average people” can do about these systemic problems. The reality is that large institutional problems require institutional solutions – and these are, quite frankly, often elusive to identify.

The sentiment has been simple but poignant: why vote if it won’t matter?

While nonviolent direct action is certainly not easy, it is often quite possible to identify discrete acts of civil disobedience that respond directly to a specific, quantifiable problem.

This simple fact, that critical issues like class inequity or racism do not have obvious targets for resistance, surely contributes to the gross demoralization of a community that feels in large part that their actions, including their votes, do not count. The sentiment has been simple but poignant: why vote if it won’t matter?

This is again why Mauna Kea has been so spiritually and psychologically important for Hawaiians. For a group that has often been left to feel marginalized and even invisible in their own homeland, the movement that Mauna Kea has started has created opportunity to be both seen and heard.

To truly build upon the opportunity at hand, Hawaiians need to successfully do the following:

  • Register to vote en masse. The reality is that many Hawaiians are still not even registered to vote. First and foremost, organizations should focus on getting Hawaiians, both young and old, to register.
  • Identify issues of importance. What matters to Hawaiians? OHA’s survey should go a long way to identify key issues, and it will be important to start dialogues in communities across the islands about these issues. Equally important will be dialogues about how to address and solve these problems. It’s very easy to talk about problems, but it’s much harder to identify and implement solutions. Hawaiians should begin to build a cache of white papers on what they believe are the solutions to critical problems and how they would implement these solutions.
  • Identify and support viable candidates. Hawaiians should begin to identify candidates that care about their issues and commit to supporting their solutions. This is a critical point, because Hawaiians will sell themselves short if they only look to identify Hawaiian candidates. Rather, it would be far more strategic and potent to identify and work with candidates and legislators who can be powerful allies on Hawaiian issues, whether or not he/she/they are in fact Native Hawaiian.
  • Hawaiians need to vote. They need to strive to be the group with the highest voter turnout. Hawaiians should commit to ensure that every single member of their family who is eligible votes in the upcoming election.

It’s unclear what the new mail-in election system will mean. It’s Hawaii, so chances are better than not that something is going to go wrong. Still, Hawaiians should use the same social media networks that made social movements over the past year so powerful to organize and execute a mass voting effort. It doesn’t need to be formal, nor does it need to be perfect, but it does need to be effective.

Scores of demonstrators rally against telescope construction on Mauna Kea on the steps of UH Manoa’s Hawaii Hall.
The movement that Mauna Kea has started has created opportunity to be both seen and heard. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Failure just isn’t an option. Failure to send a powerful message in the upcoming election will have two incredibly dangerous outcomes for Hawaiians.

First, first-time Hawaiian voters who are entering this election cycle with existing skepticism will become demoralized if they feel like their tenuous willingness to vote mattered. It needs to matter so people can see how voting makes a real difference in elections. People should feel good coming out of Election Day.

Second, Hawaiians need to send a powerful message to legislators that this community is not only mobilized around social issues but has mobilized to be a political force. We need to send a strong message that Hawaiian voters can influence the outcome of an election, and therefore need to be taken seriously.

Hawaiians are very vocal on many issues. There is no doubt in their ability to mobilize to raise their voices when needed, but it’s time to go for the longer play. There is opportunity to create a tectonic shift in Hawaii, one that can benefit the islands for generations to come, but it will take many people stepping up to take the small but bold step to vote.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.