No-shows are higher than ever at polls

Observers point to the state's one-party politics as a cause for record low turnout

Increasingly indifferent voters and a state where public life is overwhelmingly dominated by one political party contributed to a record-breaking low turnout rate of 52.3 percent in Tuesday’s general election, according to several experts who spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Wednesday.

The experts also said Republicans James “Duke” Aiona, a candidate for governor, and Charles Djou, the 1st Congressional District nominee, could have benefited immensely from higher voter turnout Tuesday.

Of 706,890 registered voters in Hawaii only 369,554 cast votes, or roughly 52.3 percent of voters. The previous low was the 52.7 percent in the 2006 general election, which was also a nonpresidential election.

Traditionally, political observers believe presidential elections lure higher numbers of voters because people want to play a role in selecting the president.

“I don’t think it’s just one thing here,” said Colin Moore, University of Hawaii political science professor. “The classic answer here is that the elections aren’t particularly competitive, the Democratic Party is dominant, and the incumbents almost always win.” To the last point, Moore noted that only one incumbent lawmaker, state Rep. Karen Awana (D, Kalaeloa-Ko Olina-Maili), was defeated Tuesday.

Hawaii may be “entering this voter turnout death spiral,” he said. “People turn out to vote mainly because it’s a social expectation. You learn from your parents and your grandparents.”

But a counterforce is apparently at work in Hawaii, Moore said.

“I think we’re getting into this almost vicious cycle here where people here aren’t excited about the elections, they don’t vote, and then don’t know many people who vote or who care much about it, and it just sort of feeds on itself.”

The 41.5 percent primary election turnout was only the fourth lowest since statehood. The record primary low was the 36.9 percent recorded in 2008, a year in which the Honolulu mayor’s race was the only high-profile competitive race.

Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said the fact that the Democratic Party of Hawaii has dominated state politics for the past 60 years plays a key role in voter apathy, especially among younger adults here.

“The current system, I feel, tends to benefit incumbents, who happen to be Democrats,” she said.

New voters are often young people who want to see change, she said. Several national studies concluded that younger voters who want change vote for Democrats, she said. Younger Democratic-leaning Hawaii residents may be deciding not to vote possibly because they may feel less of an urgency to go to the polls.

Lim said some may be asking themselves “‘we live in a blue (Democratic) state, why should I vote?'”

The trend is troubling, she said.

“We didn’t think it was possible (for voter turnout) to get lower.”

On the other hand, younger Republican-leaning Hawaii voters may be disillusioned by the Democratic dominance and conclude their votes don’t matter.

Hawaii Republican Party Chairwoman Pat Saiki said the explanation for the continued low turnout is multi-faceted. “Perhaps there is an atmosphere here of complacency, the feeling that this state is so dominated by one party, and that party makes all the decisions,” Saiki said. “So the attitude is ‘So, why vote? The same people are going to get in anyway.'”

She blamed the influence of super PACs — political action committees that can make unlimited expenditures either for or against a candidate so long as there is no coordination with a candidate’s campaign — for contributing to low voter interest. Lack of balanced and fair reporting by local news organizations, whether deliberate or not, also contributes to voter apathy, she said.

Republican campaigns in major races, including Djou’s bid for the 1st Congressional District seat and Aiona’s gubernatorial bid, would have been more competitive with a higher turnout, Saiki said.

The outcomes “absolutely would have been a lot closer,” she said, adding that more voters could have made a difference in Djou’s battle with Democrat Mark Takai, who will take a seat in Congress after defeating Djou by 6,941 votes.

Rex Quidilla, a spokesman for the state Office of Elections, said changes made recently by the state Legislature may bolster voter turnout starting with the 2018 election cycle.

Beginning in 2016, Hawaii residents already “in the system” by virtue of having a driver’s license or state identification card will be able to register online, he said.

Also beginning in 2016, potential voters will be able to register at early vote locations, Quidilla said.

In 2018, Hawaii residents also will be able to register at their polling places on the day of an election, a concept more commonly known as “same-day registration.”

Voter turnout for the general election since 1959:

voters Voted Percentage
1959 183,118 171,383 93.6%
1960 202,059 188,206 93.1%
1962 221,650 200,441 90.4%
1964 239,361 216,992 90.7%
1966 253,242 221,373 87.4%
1968 274,199 239,765 87.4%
1970 291,681 247,740 84.9%
1972 337,837 286,593 84.8%
1974 343,404 272,545 79.4%
1976 363,045 309,089 85.1%
1978 395,262 292,690 74.1%
1980 402,795 318,085 79.0%
1982 405,005 325,459 80.4%
1984 418,904 349,253 83.4%
1986 419,794 344,387 82.0%
1988 444,012 368,567 83.0%
1990 453,389 354,152 78.1%
1992 464,495 382,882 82.4%
1994 488,889 377,011 77.1%
1996 544,916 370,230 67.9%
1998 601,404 412,520 68.6%
2000 637,349 371,379 58.2%
2002 676,242 385,462 57.0%
2004 647,238 431,662 66.7%
2006 662,728 348,988 52.7%
2008 691,356 456,064 66.0%
2010 690,748 385,464 55.8%
2012 705,668 437,159 61.9%
2014 706,890 369,554 52.3%
Source: State Office of Elections

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