No Excuses For Low Voter Turnout

Congratulations to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a fine, smart and decent man. I know you are the right person for the job, and I have no doubt you can “do rail better.” You have the brains and the knowledge of the way the city works to be effective. You have personal integrity. You are blessed with a nice combination of political savvy, wonky attention to details and idealistic commitment to public service. You started as an unknown and worked your way to your goal the old-fashioned way: shoe leather, networking and most of all, a calm appeal to common sense. Our city needs your levelheaded leadership right now.

I’d also like to offer congratulations to former Gov. Ben Cayetano for a good campaign. You, sir, are an honest, pull-no-punches politician and a fighter. You and I may not agree on rail, but I respect your beliefs and your commitment to them. The fact that you turned this into an election that people had to pay attention to was no small feat. We are lucky to have your passionate voice in our community.

Congratulations to U.S. Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard, and to our new U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. Hirono is the first Asian-American female senator and the first Hawaii woman elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. It did not escape my attention that three out of four of our congressional delegates are women. That’s really pretty cool.

Every one of you who ran for elected office, whether on the national, state or county level, deserves major kudos whether or not you won. It takes courage to put yourself on the line, especially in an era marked by bitterness and negative campaigning.

The sad thing though, for those of you trying so hard for your communities, is that it seems people in Hawaii just don’t care. In 2008 Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the nation, with 66 percent of registered voters actually casting a ballot. This year was even worse, with voter turnout actually dropping to 62 percent.

What the heck is going on?

It doesn’t help at all that we still seem to be stumbling through the process. I mean, running out of paper ballots at 19 polling places? The promise of long waits in lines does nothing to make the voting process enticing. We do this every few years, why can’t we get it right?

Of course, the reasons for low turnout can’t be blamed on one bumbled election. The decline has been happening for years, and people have cited various reasons for it. The one mentioned most frequently and that resonates most deeply is the Democratic Party lock on state politics. Why vote, people think, if we already know who’s going to win?

I’d suggest there’s another reason for the lack of interest. Campaigns have gotten nasty, and no one wants to listen to all that negativity. That seriously turns people off.

Whatever the reason or reasons, we still have to find ways to turn this around. We need to better educate everyone about the value of civic participation. I admire the excellent Kids Voting Hawaii program and others that teach children about our democratic system. I think civics courses should be part of the curriculum in all middle and high schools. If we get kids excited about our democratic process early in life, they’re more likely to carry over that enthusiasm into adulthood.

I am pretty sure we can solve this, and equally sure we’re going to have to do more than one thing to get people to understand the value of their vote. We’ll have to attack it from several angles. If this were a problem with easy answers, we’d have solved it by now.

The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that we’re not alone. Voter turnout actually declined all across the nation, according to early reports from American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, and the biggest drop was along the Eastern seaboard. But those folks at least have a good reason for not showing up at the polls – they’re still reeling from Hurricane Sandy.

What’s our excuse?