Denby Fawcett: Voters Didn’t Show Up Because the Election Was Boring

The candidates were low-key, and even the attack ads were predictable. New solutions are needed to entice more people to the polls.

Before getting too tangled up in analyzing why a record number of people failed to vote in Hawaii’s general election this year, I offer a one-word answer: Boredom.

And when a political diva like me finds an election boring, you know there is a problem. I am normally thrilled by local politics.

A new low of 52.3 percent showed up at the polls this year. Hawaii’s previous low turnout for a general election was 52.7 percent in 2006.

This election was clearly dull to some voters because there were no “villains” to take out such as Gov. Neil Abercrombie, in whom Hawaii Democrats had lost faith and tossed out with a historic vote in the primary election. Or the mean-seeming Mufi Hannemann of past elections. There was no reason for vindictive voters to go after Hannemann this time. The former Honolulu mayor had worked hard to reinvent himself into a kindly statesman. And with very little money to spend and consistently low poll numbers, he was no longer a threat.

Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, says all the excitement tapered off after the primary because many people were resigned to the fact that Democrats would win all the big races. Boredom set in.

Voter ennui was increased by the long, long three months from the primary to the general election with the endless series of forums that over-saturated residents with information about the candidates.

There used to be only 45 days between Hawaii’s two elections, but in 2012 state law extended the time to 90 days to give residents living away from the islands more time to submit their votes.

The TV stations and community groups called the endless candidate discussions they organized over the three months leading up to the general election “debates,” but in reality there was very little back and forth debating.

Instead, the candidate forums were sleep-inducing panel discussions during which the candidates stated and restated their positions on issues.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige was a halting speaker. Republican Duke Aiona looked like he would rather be at a basketball game. And Hawaii Independent Party candidate Hannemann performed exceptionally well, but that didn’t seem to inspire voters to support him.

And besides the forums, there was the surge of TV commercials and candidate mailers blasting from every direction before Election Day.

“The public was saturated with information. There were so many messages from the different campaigns and super PACs. Voters became fatigued,” says Glenn Takahashi, elections administrator for Honolulu City and County.

Even the funky and sometimes fascinating negative political commercials started to all look alike with their scary music and shadowy, distorted pictures of the candidates. The commercials began to lose their punch when three or four negative ads appeared back to back in the same commercial break. It was tiresome.

And there were no compelling issues this time around.

Aiona backed away from the same-sex marriage issue and abortion rights early on. This strategy was also employed by many Republicans on the mainland in hopes of broadening their base of support.

Former state GOP director Dylan Nonaka says Aiona’s decision to ignore the gay marriage issue reduced election excitement and robbed Aiona of votes.

“You have to keep hope alive in your hard core supporters. Duke definitely closed the door. Some of his former constituents saw no reason to come out and vote for him,” says Nonaka.

Only Hannemann raised exciting issues such the possibility of reviving interisland ferry service. But there was no money to put behind a ferry, no traction. The idea went nowhere.

Then there were the candidates themselves, all nice individuals but humdrum.

Ige came from 28 years in the state Legislature, yet was still virtually unknown when the campaign began,

Mark Takai was a low-key state representative who had never run for federal office before. Takai struggled up until Election Day to gain more name recognition against his better-known GOP opponent, Charles Djou.

Djou was also low-key as a candidate, an earnest family man, not dramatic in any way.

Political analyst Nonaka says in the era of the Internet it can be better for a candidate to be bland because flamboyant politicians with their colorful shoot-from-the-hip way of talking can be easy targets on social media.

“Negative information can spread so fast with social networking,” says Nonaka. “With too much controversy, your opponent can blow a statement out of proportion or highlight one of your slip-ups and you will suffer.”

Nonaka points out how U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, one of Hawaii’s most colorful political candidates, took social media hits when her office initially hesitated to reveal to the public that the congresswoman had decided to continue surfing at Waikiki with a Yahoo reporter rather than attend a U.S. Senate hearing where she was expected on veterans’ health care.

Or consider the dramatic Abercrombie. His statements were often taken out of context and spread across the Internet. The most infamous was Abercrombie’s declaration: “ I am the governor. I am not your pal. I am not your counselor. I am the governor.”  Abercrombie was making a logical statement that leaders often have to make hard choices that are unpopular with the public, but when his words went viral on social media, he came off looking conceited and disconnected.

So what is the answer to turn around Hawaii’s voter apathy and make elections more enticing?

Common Cause Executive Director Lim believes a larger pool of candidates is needed, new and exciting candidates from all political parties, new Democrat hopefuls, new Republican wannabes and other candidates from parties including the Greens, Independents and Libertarians. Not just the same recycled Democrats voters are offered today.

Lim says potential voters will continue to be bored if they think incumbent Democrats will always win even if they make the effort to vote for other candidates.

But Lim also says that to engage voters, candidates must be sincere and truly motivated to serve the public.

Lim says this year she found herself constantly pressing her palm to her forehead in exasperation after she talked to poorly prepared, weak political candidates who told her things such as, “I want to run for office because I don’t like my current job.”

Political analyst Neal Milner thinks same-day voter registration will spark more voter participation. And Lim agrees.

Currently, Hawaii residents must register no later than 30 days before an election or they can’t vote.

In 2016, residents will be able to register on line, and at early voting sites 10 days before an election.

And in the 2018 election, residents will be able to simply show up at their assigned polling site for same-day voter registration.

Eleven other states allow people to register and vote on the same day.

Same-day registration will help first-time voters who are unaware that there are separate deadlines for voter registration and voting, as well as people who have moved here and don’t realize they have to re-register.

But what about the hundreds of thousands of Hawaii voters who are already registered yet refuse to go to the polls? That’s almost half of the state’s 706,890 registered voters.

These people are in the habit of not voting; you could even say they are addicted to not voting. It will be difficult to change their behavior.

Projects like “No Vote, No Grumble” are well meaning but silly. Telling a non-voter that it is bad for him to ignore his civic duty to vote is akin to telling an addicted smoker, “Smoking is harmful to your health.”

Maybe it would work to poke fun at the non-voters, like current TV commercials that show arrested drunken drivers looking like idiots when they are incarcerated. That might be useless, too, but at least the commercials won’t be boring.

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