Why So Many People Don’t Vote

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 01, 2008
| Del.icio.us

Much hand-wringing followed Hawaii’s Sept. 20 primary election. A record low 37 percent of the state’s registered voters went to the polls. So state officials, sitting politicians and we of the chattering class all bemoaned the miserable turnout.

But what did we expect? There were virtually no contests. Save in a handful (really a mere pinch) of open legislative districts, few seats were contested in either of Hawaii’s two major parties.

Thus most voters saw no one holding signs at busy intersections, found no candidates on their doorsteps, received no campaign literature through the mail, saw few television or newspaper advertisements and went unsolicited for campaign contributions. Had there been no multi-candidate, non-partisan mayoral contests on Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai, the voter turnout might have reached a single digit.

So why the disinterest in running for state and county offices? And why the small turn-out to vote for those with gumption enough to do so?

First, the presidential campaigns of 2007-2008 sucked all the air out of the political atmosphere. The Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton primary and caucus contests focused every Democrats’and many Independents’ attention from late last fall until early this past summer. City Council seats? Legislative offices? They could-n’t possibly compete. No legislative session in my memory received so little attention as the session past. Every incumbent, with the exception of a couple who were cited for driving under the influence (one of whom lost his primary re-election bid) got a free ride this past session.

Second, the continued decline of Hawaii’s Republican Party has made a Republican candidacy for almost any office, in almost any district, anywhere in the state, an exercise in futility. The Republicans’first governor in 40 years - despite her personal popularity - has proven powerless in her efforts to help elect others of her party to state office. And this year, any Republican aspirant considering a run faced the more daunting possibility of being drowned in the expected tidal wave generated by Hawaii-born Barack Obama. No one, after all, likes the prospect of losing.

Third, confusion depresses turnout. For many Hawaii residents of voting age, a presidential election year with its state primaries and party caucuses leaves them scratching their heads. “What’s a primary election?” a voter asks. “It’s an election in which we choose between members of our party to run for a specific office,” the civics teacher replies. “Didn’t I do that last February when I joined 37,000 other Democrats in voting for either Obama or Clinton?” the voter asks. “Well, no. That was a party-run caucus to choose a presidential candidate of the party.” “Oh ...”

Fourth, there’s the added confusion of the non-partisan contests, i.e., the hotly contested mayoral races on Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai. What are they doing on an election ballot designed to choose candidates from a party? Simply - and cynically - put, because good government types have rewritten charters to take the partisanship out of county government. They argue that there’s no ideology in sewers or buses or landfills. There most certainly is, and there’s no particular “good” in pretending otherwise.

Fifth, the Hawaii primary elections take place on a Saturday. On September Saturdays Hawaii’s stressed residents go to the beach, watch college football, shop, or - horror of horrors - go to their second job: the one that allows them to get braces for the daughter or pay tuition for junior. They don’t want to be bothered by elections in which there are few contested races if any at all. For years, former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi mightily complained about the Saturday primary, arguing that his working class supporters had far more important things to do on that day than vote. Now it’s not just the working class that has better things to do.

Finally, there’s the age-old argument of those who stay at home that “My vote doesn’t matter.” Civics teachers decry such an attitude, but - in fact - most votes don’t matter. The incumbent will almost always win whether any particular one of us votes or not. And the candidate who has the most money to spend on his or her campaign (usually the incumbent) will almost always win whether any particular one of us votes or not.

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