Every act of aloha counts. Click here to DONATE to the MAUI RELIEF Fund.            

Hawaii’s Dismally Low Voter Turnout

I knew when I walked up to the polling place that turnout must have been low. There was a certain quiet resignation emanating from the volunteers, and my suspicion was confirmed when I asked.

“Slow,” the woman sitting at the cafeteria table said.

“Slow,” echoed the woman sitting beside her.

We’ve had a problem with voter turnout for years, so I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was just how low it actually turned out to be.

Record-setting low. Woefully low. Shamefully low — 52.2 percent of registered voters bothered to exercise their constitutional right and privilege. That’s out of 706,890 registered voters. The lowest, before this, was in 2006, with 52.7 percent.

What is it? Apathy? Ennui? Anger? Laziness? Burnout? Tropical fever?

Whatever the reason for the dismal voter turnout, one cannot ignore that there is a serious disconnect somewhere. And it must be fixed lest we simply disappear into a cloud of lassitude entirely of our own making.

In the coming weeks, I’m sure we’ll see some attempts to analyze this perplexing, chronic problem. I have to admit to being baffled. Most of the people I spend time with take pride in voting, make it a point to do so and are not shy about declaring their views.

I also come into contact with many people who are so busy just trying to survive that voting is the lowest thing on their to-do list. I’m talking about people who don’t know if they’ll have adequate food or shelter on any given day.

I’ll give them a pass.

But in between those two extremes are an awful lot of people who can vote, who should vote.

So I’m going to avoid the moralizing here. You’ve already heard your civics teachers and pundits (and columnists) tell you how people die and have died for the right to vote, how it’s the way our great democracy works, and how ashamed we should all be at our low voter turnout.

Stop already. Because obviously, here’s what people are hearing instead of your fine and well-intentioned words: blah blah, blah blah blah. Blah. Blaaaahhh.

I asked political scientist Neal Milner what he thinks we should do.

Milner says there are some things that appear to be associated with success at getting people to the polls.

Flexible registration, same-day registration and voting by mail all are helpful. Hawaii is pretty good about two out of the three. We don’t have same-day registration, but our mail-in voting system is established. I use it.

Competition drives people to vote. States with hotly contested races and issues have higher turnouts.

Well, except for ours. We had a fairly competitive and interesting governor’s race. Still, it wasn’t enough. And Milner doesn’t see that changing in the next election either.

Another reason people vote: habit. That’s why older people tend to vote more than the young’uns. They’re more attached to the system, have seen how it works and have benefited from it. It takes time to develop a habit, good or bad. And unfortunately, Milner says people in Hawaii have gotten into the habit of not voting.

So what can get people to change their habit of apathy?

Milner says nagging doesn’t do it. “Changing a person’s voting behavior for the better — well, the process is a lot like changing a person’s health habits. Hectoring doesn’t work.”

It’s like trying to get a person to exercise. Just telling them it’s good for them and telling them how unhealthy they are if they don’t generally doesn’t work.

What does? Peer pressure. Changing expectations.

Milner calls it “shaming.” Political scientists have tried it, he says, telling people, “We know you didn’t vote and your neighbors voted. We can show you that.” But they also threatened to publicize the information, which naturally caused blowback and accusations of bullying (rightfully, I think).

Milner doesn’t go that far, but he does advocate for the combination of peer and social pressure, by convincing people that they’re not doing well compared with their neighbors.

“We have to become less moralistic and more psychological,” he says.

He points to utility companies as an example of how to get people to change lifelong habits. Energy and water consumption, he says, go down when customers see everyone else around them conserving.

Do you have any ideas about how we can break the habit of voter apathy in Hawaii? How can we make this better? I encourage you to join the conversation in a constructive way.

If you have suggestions, email me.