Beth Fukumoto: Not Voting Is An Unhealthy Behavior. We Need To Fix It - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.

Once we understand existing beliefs and barriers to casting ballots, we can turn to a variety of strategies to change them.

I don’t know about you, but the pandemic wreaked havoc on my weight. The Covid “19” was definitely more brutal than my freshman “15.” Of course, turning 40 didn’t help.

Before you start googling “Beth Fukumoto weight gain,” I should say this isn’t really about that. But it’s the easiest way to talk about why we don’t change our behaviors — like eating or voting — even when we know we should.

Sometime last year, I started to get serious about eating healthy. Not because I buy into anyone else’s definition of beauty, but I knew I was in a place that wouldn’t be good for me physically or emotionally.

Yet as I tried to adopt healthy habits, I ran into a few standard roadblocks for anyone trying to change anything. The first two are pretty basic. My personal qualities — like a lack of willpower — and availability of healthy choices.

The former is an individual problem that isn’t easy to overcome, but there are strategies to fix it. The latter is a systems problem, particularly in the U.S. where we put billions of dollars into subsidizing beef and very little into fruits and vegetables. So eating more vegetables can become a budget-stretching choice.

But, for me, the biggest reason I struggled to change was that I ate whenever I was bored, sad or anxious, and those feelings made all my good intentions evaporate. Why? Because food reminded me of late nights with my friends at Zippy’s, TV dinners with my family, plate lunches at the beach and my dad’s beef stew. It reminded me of being home and being loved.

Earlier this week, I walked into a classroom with a single line written on the chalkboard. “Culture eats policy for breakfast.” It’s a take on a quote by management pioneer Peter Drucker.

I grew up in a culture that revolved around eating. It was the purpose for any gathering, the marker of a good event and a measure of how much you value each other. So, of course, that was more powerful than any willpower strategies or economic choices.

Voters at Honolulu Hale a day before the general election day.
Hawaii allows voters to mail in ballots or go to the polls on Election Day. Why is there such an abysmal turnout? (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The same is true for voting. In a previous column, I argued that the reason for our abysmal voter turnout, which has hovered between 50% to 60% in recent years, is that we don’t have strong enough social norms or shared standards of behavior that promote voting. How do we change that?

First, we need to understand the problem. It’s more than “people don’t vote.” Instead, we need to understand why we don’t vote. For example, in countries that are new democracies, people sometimes struggle to vote either because they’ve experienced too much political conflict, lived under authoritarian rule or learned over time that civic engagement was dangerous. When those dangers disappear, it can still be hard to change.

That’s not our problem. But we need to find out what is. Figuring it out requires people from our various communities, including each island, neighborhood, ethnic group, religious group, etc., to come together and examine what we believe about voting and politics. I wouldn’t pretend to speak for every community. But looking at my own social circles, there were a few harmful beliefs that I needed to overcome when entering politics.

One of the dominant ideas was that to be Japanese was to be one of many and not assume I knew better than the next person. Any encouragement to use my “vote as my voice” was antithetical to a culture in which I was encouraged to listen more than “voice” anything. 

Another belief that still sticks with me is that people in authority know more than I do. Some of the most educated people I grew up with are still reluctant to vote because they don’t think they know enough to make a good choice.

Once we understand existing beliefs and barriers, we can turn to a variety of strategies to change them.

One is to organize spaces to discuss and identify our beliefs about voting with the intention of finding community-driven ways to counter those beliefs. The beliefs that are most ingrained in us are those reinforced by the people around us so the more people we can engage the better.

Another is to engage gatekeepers, aka influential people who maintain the status quo. A mentor of mine often says the status quo isn’t an accident. Maintaining the status quo requires an active effort by the people who benefit from it and the passive support of the majority. Big changes to the status quo are more successful if we can sway a few gatekeepers into supporting it.

While there are a dozen different ways to shift social norms around voting, I’ll leave you with just one more – leveraging what we already do well. Telling anyone that they’re doing something wrong is always a bad place to start. So lifting people up who are already voting helps. It also helps to lift up existing community values.

For example, “for the sake of the children” is an oft-used campaign line here for a good reason. Because of my upbringing, I’m much more likely to vote if you appeal to the sense of duty to my community and my family that was instilled at a young age. I might not care about using my vote as my voice, but I will care about the next generation.

The key to all these strategies is a ground-up approach. The media, celebrities and politicians have already tried some of these, but they won’t work unless you use them yourself. As someone who represented a close-knit community, I know that my constituents were much more likely to listen to their neighbor’s opinion than my own. 

So remember, you have the best chance of shifting our beliefs and making sure we vote. These are just a few options that you can try.


Read this next:

Ben Lowenthal: Supreme Court Ruling In Same-Sex Wedding Case Sets A Dangerous Precedent


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Great column, Beth! Thoughtful and helpful.

RussellR · 2 months ago

Surely the usurpation of Hawaiian sovereignty and violations of treaties with the US has contributed to a disenfranchised and disillusioned Hawaiian people with distrust for US government in the Hawaiian Islands. When coupled with a thorough understanding of the Statehood vote, which when researched anyone can find that it was manufactured for the purposes of US national interests, then it's easy to see why people don't register or turnout to vote in these islands. Some people just vote with their feet and stay home. Still, that's a vote that speaks volumes.

AHawaiianMan · 2 months ago

Are we sure it's not our problem? There's a lot of faceless bureaucrats who hold a lot of power over our lives here. It's pretty easy to be squashed by one if you chirp up at the wrong time. You may think it's "not our problem" here, but I'd refer you to watching the news and the tip of the surface the fed's are scratching. Certainly my lived experience in this state think's its one of our problems...We empowered our local government with lots of regulatory and compliance actions. That apparatus does it's pleasure, making sure any and all squeaky wheels comply. When I read about the daily lives of North Korean's and their struggles to not offend someone in the party at a hyper local level, I feel a certain inspired kinship with them.Can this stop an individual vote? Who knows. Are you the type to chance em and sprint across Pali Highway when you think no one's looking? But threat of retaliatory pressure certainly stops larger organizations of civic engagement here.

heluhelu · 2 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.