The Mystery Of Why We Don’t Vote

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - February 14, 2007

Only 53 percent of the state’s registered voters cast ballots last November, a new low in Hawaii’s electoral history. And in the 2002 and 2004 elections, the first of which featured a hotly contested gubernatorial contest and the second the tight George W. Bush-John Kerry presidential face-off, Hawaii’s turnouts hit rock bottom among the 50 states.

Why don’t we vote? The explanations are many and varied, and I’m not at all sure I can come anywhere near cataloging them all, but here goes:

First, national political campaigns pay us no mind. They see Hawaii as the bluest of blue states, wherein Democrats dominate the state Legislature (overwhelmingly), the congressional delegation, and - for all but seven of Hawaii’s 48 years as a state - the governorship. So the national Republican Party wastes little or no cash to presidential and congressional campaigns in Hawaii - and the Democratic Party does-n’t need to.

Don’t believe me? Ask Bob Hogue or Cynthia Thielen, the Republican candidates for the open 2nd District congressional seat and the United States Senate against an already-pummeled Democrat Dan Akaka. Oh, sure, in 2004, on the basis of a late poll in which Bush appeared to be closing on Kerry, the Republicans spent some money on advertising - to no avail. No money spent means no advertising, which means low voter turnout.

That doesn’t explain gubernatorial election years or the steep plummet voting participation rates have taken since Hawaii’s early years as a state. So try this.

In 1959 and early ‘60s, first-, second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans constituted between 35 percent and 40 percent of the electorate. They had lived in the Islands for more than half-a-century. Their sons had served valiantly in World War II and Korea.

Statehood meant first-class citizenship for this proud ethnic group long suspected and stigmatized in Island life. Thus when given the chance for full participation in the politics of the nation and new state, Japanese-Americans made a religion of it - voting as if their lives and after-lives depended on it.

In election year 2006, Japanese-Americans constituted less than one-fifth of the state’s population. Today Hawaii’s voting population is significantly more diverse - and newer: Koreans, Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Mainland transplants, Filipinos. They haven’t been here long; and, in the case of a good number of them, they’ve yet to make the psychological trip across the beach into the life of the community. So they don’t vote, or they vote sporadically.

Then there’s organization. Blue collar unions like the ILWU once delivered their workers to the polls in impressive numbers. In many Neighbor Island elections the ILWU endorsement meant you had won the election.

No more. Working class Hawaii increasingly knows no union ties and without union organization prodding, service industry workers too often don’t make it to the polls, in part because they haven’t time to get there between jobs and school and managing the kids. The cost of everything in Hawaii has taken its toll: on marriages and children, on affordable housing supplies and healthcare. Folks consumed with survival often neglect candidates and their complex policy debates. They also neglect to make the 10-minute drive to the polling place.

Then there’s youth. Many of us took up following politics and voting when we took up life’s other adult responsibilities. Most of us left home when we were 18 or 19 - for college or the military or marriage. Now junior often stays at home until ... well, for a long time. Junior can’t afford to leave, and he doesn’t take on an adult’s responsibilities - or his frustrations with government.

Youths also live in a new world, the cyber world of chat rooms and blogs. Their ties to the communities outside the front door are even more tenuous than that of their television-watching parents. How, compared to MySpace, could the elected officials of those communities possibly make a difference in their lives?

There are a number of bills in the Legislature this session designed to increase voter participation. I’m not sanguine that any of them would make an appreciable difference. That’s a shame.

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