Low voter turnout haunts isles
Wider use of absentee ballots could reverse Hawaii's lousy record in primary elections
WINNING in politics is simple: Just get more votes than your opponent.
In Hawaii finding those voters, in a state with one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation, is what makes a candidate a winner.
"I consider turnout to be crucial and that is why I ended every speech two years ago by reminding people to vote," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who won office by less than 1,600 votes in 2004.
"I knew my supporters were in areas that historically had low turnout, so I made an effort to encourage them to vote," Hannemann said.
A survey of Hawaii legislators, lobbyists and neighborhood board chairs reveals how to encourage voting in Hawaii.
Does Hawaii have a problem with low voter turnout? Hawaii's political insiders answer that question in today's Hawaii's Insider Survey in the Editorial Section.
Increasing voter turnout is not every politician's strategy however. U.S. Rep. Ed Case. running against Sen. Dan Akaka in the Democratic primary, said he is not concerned about either a high or low voter turnout.
"I am not particularly worried about turnout. One would assume that a higher voter turnout would favor me, but that is not necessarily true.
"The people who supported me in past elections in Manoa were the ones interested in change and it was never because of significantly higher turnout," Case said.
Nationally, Hawaii is recognized as a state with low turnout, according to Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at George Mason University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Hawaii does have one of the lowest turnout rates in presidential elections, I believe because the state is not competitive in the presidential election, receives little attention from the candidates as a consequence, and because most of those in Hawaii know who won the election while the polls are still open," McDonald said.
Fiery, competitive races bring voters to the polls, says University of Hawaii political scientist Neal Milnor.
"We don't have a lot of elections that are closely fought and highly competitive," Milnor said.
And McDonald warns it is difficult to compare one state to another because each has different voting laws and each has different ways of purging the names of voters who have failed to vote in past elections.
Hawaii, for instance, had a much more rigorous purging process, but recently changed it to keep persons on the rolls even if they hadn't voted in the last two elections.
That increased the base number of voters and effectively lowered Hawaii's voter turnout percentage.
McDonald, in a national survey of voters in the 2004 election, took all the state's voting age population, dropped those who were noncitizens or in prison or ineligible to vote and then calculated the voter turnout.
Hawaii was still the lowest, with just 48.6 percent of those eligible voting.
The national Census Bureau pegged Hawaii's voting turnout in 2004 at 50.8 percent, again the lowest in the nation.
In comparison, Hawaii Office of Elections figured turnout as the percentage of registered voters who voted. In that check, Hawaii looked much better with 58.4 percent.
"We deal only with the institutional numbers, that is those who actually registered to vote," said Rex Quidilla, a spokesman for the Office of Elections. "The feds use a voting age population, that is anyone who is over 18, but that may not meet all voter qualifications."
Voter advocates this year are encouraged by the work done by Denise DeCosta, Honolulu city clerk, who has mailed out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in Honolulu.
Quidilla notes that Hawaii's absentee ballot numbers have steadily increased since the law was changed to permit anyone to vote absentee with a reason.
"This is a significant trend away from Election Day voting," Quidilla said.
According to state election statistics, 11.5 percent of Hawaii voters took an absentee ballot in the 2000 general election. It was 16.3 percent in 2002 and jumped to 20.7 percent in the 2004 general election.
Jean Aoki, legislative chair of the Hawaii League of Women Voters, says she has some concerns about absentee voting because, if someone makes a mistake on their ballot or needs help with voting they don't have the same options they would if they had voted in person on Election Day.
DeCosta, however, says the response has been favorable and the absentee ballot plan was supported by the City Council.
One of the best ways to get more voters to vote, Milnor says, is for the political parties to run their own get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Democratic and Republican party spokesmen say they are already working on that.
Also labor unions and other interest groups are pushing voter registration and voter turnout.
For instance, Kelly Rosati, executive director of the Family Forum, is working with the Catholic conference on a campaign to increase voter participation with registration drives at churches.
"We also survey candidates on a broad range of issues and publish the unedited responses in our voter information guides," Rosati said.
In the end, however, politicians don't always care about a high voter turnout.
"You want to win office, you don't want a lot of people at the polls unless they are going to vote for you," Milnor said.
YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE
The state Office of Elections and county clerks can register voters.
To register you must be 18, a citizen of the United State and a legal resident of Hawaii.
You can register by mail after getting an application from a public library, satellite City Hall, the Hawaiian Telephone directory or the Office of Elections Web site: http;//hawaii.gov/elections.
You must register if you have changed your name or your address.
The major political parties also sponsor voter registration online at http://www.gophawaii.com/ and www.oahudemocrats.org.
Office of Elections: 453-8683
City and County of Honolulu: 523-4293
County of Hawaii: (808)961-8277
County of Maui: (808)270-7749
County of Kauai: (808)241-6350
Aug. 24: Primary Election Voter Registration Deadline
Oct. 9: General Election Voter Registration Deadline
Sept. 16: Primary election applications for absentee ballot must be received by the City/County Clerk where you reside no later than 4:30 p.m.
Oct. 31: General election absentee applications must be received by the City/County Clerk where you reside no later than 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 23: Primary Election
Nov. 7: General Election
In recent elections, Hawaii primary election turnout has been dramatically slipping. It has gone from a high in 1978 of 74.6 percent to a low of 39.7 two years ago.
Here are the figures:
Percentage of registered voters who voted in the primary election:
1996 - 51.8%
1998 - 50.0%
2000 - 39.9%
2002 - 41.1%
2004 - 39.7%