Chad Blair: It’s Easy To Vote In Hawaii, So Why Isn’t Turnout Higher? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

When I was a teenager my family moved overseas. Well before the 1980 election came, I applied for an absentee ballot so that I could vote in the Carter v. Reagan election — my first presidential election.

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In those pre-internet days it was a royal pain to register. Since I was overseas there was no local elections office; it was largely done through the mail.

Once I got the ballot I had to have it notarized. But I was proud to do my civic duty, even though the guy I voted for lost. I have voted in every election since, no matter where I lived.

I share my personal story because many people still bemoan the fact that Hawaii’s voter turnout numbers appear low. The August primary saw 39.8% turnout rate, a drop from the impressive 51.2% turnout in 2020. There are worries that the turnout on Nov. 8 will be well below the 69.6% of the 2020 general election.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that this year’s turnout numbers are still slightly higher than the 2018 numbers, the last election before Hawaii implemented all mail-in balloting. There were also more registered voters — 853,874 compared with 741,007 — than four years ago.

As well, the data must be understood in the context of the state’s population decline due to outmigration. The Census Bureau put Hawaii’s population in July 2021 at 1,455,271, a decline of .7% — or 10,358 people — from the year before.

Put another way, while our population is shrinking, more people are registered to vote.

screen shot from an RFP from the Hawaii Office of Elections Oct 2022
Source: Hawaii Office of Elections 

To be sure, Hawaii’s voting patterns are far from the best nationwide. Ballotpedia reports that voter turnout — total ballots cast expressed as a percentage of eligible voters — in the U.S. in 2020 was 66.7%.

Hawaii came in at 57% that year, placing it near the bottom along with Oklahoma, Arkansas and West Virginia. Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Washington state did best, all well above the national average.

Getting The Word Out

The good news is that the Hawaii State Elections Office has stepped up its voter education and outreach efforts. OMG Marketing Communications was the sole bidder for a $198,000 contract issued last year to inform people in the islands on the “where, when, and how of voting — like when ballots are getting sent out and how to register,” said Nedielyn Bueno, who handles voter services for the elections office.

The campaign involves radio, television and print advertisements, including a primary election guide published in newspapers statewide. The office also sends out a monthly newsletter to interested voters and community groups with important election season reminders.

Scott Nago, the chief elections officer, said the impetus for greater outreach and education was the Covid-impacted 2020 election.

State Office of Elections paid advertising 2022

“Basically, everything got shut down and we needed to find another avenue to reach out to voters, to get the word out,” he explained. That avenue was hiring OMG. (It stands for Oahu Media Group, BTW — not Oh My God.)

The outreach does not focus much on social media, however.

“We do some social media — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” said Bueno. “However, we’ve found that sharing on these platforms stirs up mis- and dis-information rather than helping us combat it.”

Elected officials and the media tend to blame the state and counties for poor turnout. But the responsibility actually lies with voters themselves, the political parties and the candidates.

“Our office is focused on the mechanics — the who, what, where,” said Rex Quidilla, election administrator for the City and County of Honolulu. “We exclude the ‘why’ purposefully. People vote because they are motivated or optimistic, or they are passionate about the issues or the candidates, or they are angry or there is malaise.”

Quidilla’s point is that it is not up to government to inspire people to vote.

Jon Henricks, the county clerk for Hawaii County, agrees that it’s up to the candidates to help get out the vote, although the state and counties have a responsibility to keep voters informed of registration deadlines.

And, while Henricks thinks voting is becoming much easier to the point that one day little outreach may be needed at all, what individual voters know depends on their own spheres of information.

“I still talk to people who say it was a surprise when, during the primary, people went to the school cafeteria or community center and no one was there,” he said, referring to the tradition of precinct voting before mail-in balloting became the norm. “There are still voters out there who are not aware of how voting occurs. It is important for us not to become so comfortable with the current system that we take it for granted.”

Easy To Vote Here

Here’s some more good news. Last month The New York Times reported on the “easiest and hardest” states to vote in, in terms of personal cost, time and effort. Oregon and Washington fared the best, according to the academic study cited by the Times, and voters in New Hampshire and Mississippi the worst.

(The Granite State seems aware of its voting woes. The Washington Post reported this week that a New Hampshire Special Committee on Voter Confidence is working to identify the causes of the decline in voter confidence and recommend ways to reverse it.)

Hawaii ranked high — fourth-easiest, just behind Vermont and just ahead of Colorado. The categories given the most weight by political scientists were “ease of registration” to vote and the “availability of early voting,” both in person and by mail.

The rankings were the first since “the avalanche” of voting laws passed by legislatures across the country after 2020 — that is, after the presidential election that Donald Trump still argues was stolen from him. An example is Georgia’s new law to bar outside groups from providing food and water to voters waiting in line — a step backwards in terms of voting access.

Among its other findings, the study found that at least seven states enacted 10 laws that make voting more difficult, including five states that are in place for the midterms next month.

That was not the case in Hawaii. The progressive group Democracy Docket, for example, identifies Oregon, Washington and Hawaii among the 24 states that took steps to make voting easier. In Hawaii that included new laws that added a voter registration application to all state ID and driver’s license applications and modified Hawaii’s universal mail voting program adopted by expanding the number of voting centers.

Hawaii, says Democracy Docket, also established advisory committees for voters with disabilities and required the state to inform individuals on parole or probation of their right to vote and provide them with voting information.

In spite of the praise, Hawaii could do better. Several voter information guide bills were introduced in the 2022 session of the Hawaii Legislature but none passed. One would have required the office of elections to prepare a voter registration guide for its website, or to mail out a printed version upon request.

Maybe one day Hawaii will have a guide like California, Washington and Oregon do. As Civil Beat previously opined, Alaska’s Official Election Pamphlet would be a terrific one to model, too.

Washington, by the way, just launched a multi-platform awareness campaign called Vote With Confidence to help counter the growing election-denier movement.

“It’s meant to tell people that Washington has an accessible voting system and that they can trust the integrity of numerous security measures,” said Derrick Nunnally, deputy director of external affairs for the Office of the Secretary of State.


Read this next:

Maui Voters To Decide On A Measure To Boost Access To Government Records


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Along with the voter registration totals, it would have been more helpful to the the Ratio of Elegible voters compared to Registered voters. Please keep that in mind for future articles. Thank you.

davet2man · 1 month ago

The Democrats dominate Hawaii, and they all march in lock step. They do what they’re told by their leadership, and they better do it if they want a future in this state. Why bother voting? For what? The same old same old. Voting is not about the number of people casting ballots. Voting is about continuing down the same path, or down a new and different path. Cookie cutter candidates do not inspire change or anticipation of something new and different.

WildJim · 1 month ago

A voter education guide may be on the way if the draft measure under consideration by Hawaii’s Commission to Impress be Standards of Conduct is approved in the 2023 session.This would boost understanding of candidates and ballot questions.For 2022 elections, the League of Women Voters hopes all registered voters will vote. This is an important election!

JanetMason · 1 month ago

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