It’s no secret that voter turnout is abysmal in Hawaii — it’s a well-documented issue, both by local and national media, with many scholars and analysts taking stabs at trying to explain why that is.
“It’s quite sad, really,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a grassroots organization that works to boost public participation in government.
There are a lot of theories about the severe lack of engagement, she said, including the high cost of living and the dominant one-party system in the state.
There are also clues in data about where people turned out — or didn’t — to vote. State elections data from 2018 shows that the west side of Oahu, which includes areas like Waianae, Waipahu, Ewa, Ewa Beach and Nanakuli, had the lowest turnout during the primary elections.
Some people believe things may be different this year, though, despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
For one thing, the state has transitioned to an all-mail voting system, which studies have shown to improve turnout rates. For another, activists say Native Hawaiians, who for years have been disengaged from the voting process, are experiencing a new tide of civic engagement.
What The Numbers Show
Data shows that there’s been a 54% decrease in voter turnout between 1959 — when Hawaii became a state — and 2018.
The statewide turnout for the primary election in 2018 was 39%, compared with 84% in 1959. All counties, except for Kauai County at 43%, were in the high 30s in 2018.
So there’s been a huge decline over the years. But that doesn’t give us clues or insight into what could be causing it.
What could give us more information is to know where turnout was high or low.
After the 2018 elections, the state put out an interactive map showing voter turnout figures by state House districts. That also helped give us a picture of where people were voting and how — by mail, walking in early or at the polling station on election day.
This map shows voter turnout for the 2018 primary elections on a gradient scale — the higher the turnout, the darker the district. You may have noticed that the entire west side of Oahu looks bare. Districts that include areas like Ewa, Waianae, Waipahu, Nanakuli, Kunia, Kapolei, Makakilo and Makaha had some of the lowest turnout rates in the entire state.
The districts with the lowest voter turnout rates tended to be lower-income, relatively rural and have higher immigrant, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations. Voting tends to be less regular in those areas, Ma of Common Cause Hawaii says.
Some of the districts with low turnout rates also have some of the highest Native Hawaiian populations on the island.
In District 43, which includes Ewa Villages, Kalaeloa, Honokai Hale, Kahe Point and Nanakuli, the population is nearly 65% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, according to the American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-Year estimates. The district had a 26.3% turnout rate.
Adjoining District 44, which includes Waianae, Makaha, Makua and Maili had a 27.7% turnout. That district is 64.7% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander.
Kuhio Lewis, CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said he finds many Native Hawaiians feel disengaged and disenfranchised from the political process.
That’s how much voter turnout has decreased since 1969.
“I think a good number of Hawaiians just don’t connect with the American system,” he said. It’s a system, he said, that historically didn’t represent their culture or values.
That could help explain why areas where large numbers of Native Hawaiians live reflect low voter turnout rates, he said. However, there are many Native Hawaiians who do engage in the process.
And the 2020 voter turnout map is likely not going to look the same, he predicts — not for the Native Hawaiians, at least. A lot has happened in the past year, including the protests on Mauna Kea, that pushed Native Hawaiian civic engagement to another level. More Native Hawaiians involved in activism are running for office.
“All of this is culminating in 2020,” Lewis said. “I hope that translates to greater turnout this year.”
Keiva Lei Cadena of Waipahu, a Native Hawaiian activist who works as an HIV community engagement coordinator for the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, says she has witnessed an “uprising” up close in the past year.
“I have not ever in my life had so many conversations about the election,” she said.
There have been social media conversations, events and workshops on the west side to teach people, particularly Hawaiians, about the importance of being politically engaged, she said.
“I’m looking forward to see how much we have been able to inspire the west side to get involved in the election process,” Cadena said. “If we want something done, we need to play this game that they’re playing,” she added.
And her hope is that the movement won’t fizzle out when the big issues disappear from the headlines, she said. “I want to make it a culture for us to be part of that political process.”
Holding An Election In A Pandemic
The election is on a very long list of things that COVID-19 complicated for us this year.
“We were fortunate that the preparations were already in place to implement election by mail this year,” said Nadielyn Bueno, the voter services section head for the state Office of Elections.
Otherwise, it really could have taken some serious scrambling.
But it also meant the usual outreach events, including the registration drives at malls, farmers markets and supermarkets, couldn’t happen, Bueno said.
There have been some targeted efforts in lower turnout areas, which included the west side and parts of Chinatown, she said. But this year, because of the pandemic, media campaigns — including television, radio and digital advertising — have taken their place.
Still, Bueno says mail-in voting should help increase access to voting.
“We hope they do take that opportunity and participate in the process,” Bueno said. “It’s convenient. They don’t have to go to the polls on election day, wait in line and fight the traffic.”
This election will be held by all-mail voting for the first time in Hawaii.
Ma of Common Cause Hawaii says she’s still worried, though. People may still turn up to traditional polling locations to vote on election day, even though they will all be closed. And there are only eight voter services centers statewide.
“And now with this high increase in COVID-19 infections in our state, there’s some talk about limiting services,” she said. “I hope that’s not voter service centers.”
We’ll have to stay tuned about that. In the meantime, mail in your ballots, Ma said. If you’ve already done so, check your ballot status and get your fancy electronic “I Voted” sticker.
“All of our voices matter in government,” she said. “Some of our races are decided by 20 votes or less. It absolutely matters.”
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