CNN Calls Hawaii 'The State That Doesn't Vote,' But What If That Changed?

Getting Hawaii out of the registered voter basement.


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Low voter turnout is an embarrassingly persistent Hawaii trend.

How bad is it? In 2012, CNN sent a crew here that filed a report called: “Hawaii: The State that doesn’t vote."

In 2012, about 62 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters cast ballots in the general election. Of those voters, only about a third of registered voters under 30 went to the polls.

People are busy or uninterested; they feel their votes don’t count because the presidential election often gets called before our results are final; by the time they get interested enough to want to vote, the voter deadline has passed, and on and on and on.

If parents are passing these attitudes on to their children, young voters might not pick up the habit themselves. “Voter apathy is a huge barrier,” says state Rep. Beth Fukumoto.

What if Hawaii could change that, though? We asked an HPU Communication professor, a Campbell High School government teacher, and two young legislators from each party about how to get Hawaii’s young people to vote and what difference it would make for the state.

How can we get young people interested in politics?

Campbell High School teacher Corey Rosenlee has an interesting idea for getting young people to vote: lowering the voting age to 16.

Rosenlee, who teaches a mandatory Participation in Democracy course and an Advanced Placement government course, says allowing kids to vote while they’re still in school would get them to register to vote and actually experience the voting booth for the first time with their peers. As Rosenlee points out, by time they’re 18, most potential voters are no longer in high school and have no one to walk them through the voting process.

“We teach the kids how to drive, but we don’t necessarily teach them how to vote,” Rosenlee points out.

John Hart, chairman of the Communication Department at Hawaii Pacific University, suggests young voters need a cause. During the Vietnam era, 18-year-olds decided if they were old enough to go to war, they should be old enough to drink. So they mobilized and got the drinking age lowered in several states. When the Vietnam vets got older, they didn’t protest when the age was raised back to 21.

In a sense, a compelling cause is how state Rep. Kaniela Ing, a 25-year-old Democrat from Maui, ended up in politics. While Ing was in college, he was a musician, his friends were musicians, and none of them had an interest in politics. That is, until budget restrictions forced cuts to the University of Hawaii-Manoa music program in which Ing was planning to get his second major. His then-girlfriend’s education program was also in danger of being cut back, so he decided to do something about it.

Ing ran for president of the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii (ASUH), won, and continued his political career in the state Legislature, where he’s the youngest member in the House. And he did it with some help from those musician friends who also hadn’t been interested in politics.

But not everyone gets interested in politics because of a cause. In fact, Ing speculates that some voter apathy can be attributed to the fact that people are fine with the status quo. “If you don’t see a lot of problems, you probably aren’t inclined to vote,” Ing says. “It’s not because they think their vote doesn’t count. It’s because they’re happy.”

Rep. Beth Fukumoto, 31, a Republican representing Mililani, didn’t get interested in politics until after college. (She notes that was different for her husband David Chang, who served until recently as head of the Hawaii Republican Party. He was always interested in politics. Now 34, Chang at one point was the youngest party leader in the country.)

Fukumoto was attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., during Barack Obama’s first presidential election. Obama may have galvanized a lot of youth voters, but Fukumoto wasn’t one of them. “I was just not interested,” she says.

She became engaged in politics after coming back to Hawaii and realizing that a master’s degree in English doesn’t qualify you for many jobs. She had a cousin who worked at the state Legislature and ended up getting a job there, too. “It was very accidental,” she says.

But, as Fukumoto learned more about state politics, she realized it was time for her generation to start stepping up: “At this point in time, it’s our turn to change things -- or not. We’re not going to be able to blame the generations before us because now it’s our time.”

People who are ambivalent about politics should spend some time at the state Capitol and look at it from a youth perspective. “They think it doesn’t matter, but if you came down here, you could see that it does matter and we would have a better system,” Fukumoto says.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2019
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