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

Getting Hawaii out of the registered voter basement.

Photo: Thinkstock

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.


Who would benefit if more young people voted?

Rosenlee says the biggest beneficiaries would be the young voters themselves. The state budget allocates more for programs that support seniors than those that support children –reflecting the reality that kupuna vote and keiki don't. “There are more children in poverty than senior citizens and it almost correlates exactly to the exact amount we spend on social security and free health care,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the same for young people.”

If young people voted, Rosenlee thinks college would be free. If they lowered the voting age to 16, teenage voters could demand better schools. But, he points out, “Politicians don’t feel like they have to cater to the young demographic because they don’t vote. There’s no need to fix our schools if our children don’t vote.”

Along those lines, Ing explained that you rarely see political candidates outside of Long’s Drugs shaking hands because they don’t know if those customers even vote. Candidates are going door-to-door, and it’s not every door. They’re targeting the homes of registered voters.

Ing thinks that if young voters came out, there might be positive changes to student debt and college tuition. As a progressive Democrat, he expects that if other young people supported the same sorts of causes, we’d see more equality measures like same-sex marriage or pay equity. “There could be a shift in understanding of social issues if young people are out in front of those things,” he says.

He also points out, “You give one-third of your income to the government (through taxes). If it takes one-third of your day to vote, that’s you helping decide where that money goes.”

Fukumoto says that many believe her party—the Republicans—would be the losers if more young people voted. But she disagrees. “Most young people are not tied to a political party—less tied to the constructs of a party. They’re more interested in what needs to be done,” she says.

“They just want to see you be able to work together and solve a problem with any political party,” she added.

Hart looked at the issue a little differently, focusing on the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Brian Schatz and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. Some polls show Schatz slightly ahead, some show them about even given the margin of error, and a Civil Beat poll Hart referred to showed them in a dead heat. Reporter Chad Blair wrote, “Both candidates do well among female voters and voters over 50 years of age, but Hanabusa does better than Schatz among males and voters under 50. That may confuse pundits who say this race is generational or about gender.”

At 41, many would expect Schatz to resonate more with men and younger voters than 63-year-old Hanabusa.

How can we get more young people to vote?

In 2008, Hawaii’s Democratic caucuses were huge social affairs, with thousands showing up to support Hawaii-born Barack Obama. But by the time election day rolled around, the young people who showed up at the caucuses sat out the general election. “A caucus is a party, it’s exciting,” Hart said. “Standing in line at an elementary school for 20 minutes, then standing in a little thing with a curtain by yourself isn’t a social event.”

Ing described how some of his friends turn voting into a social activity. They all get absentee mail ballots, watch the debates together, analyze the candidates, then fill out their ballots and send them in.

But Ing did something even more significant this session. He got a bill passed that would allow election-day registration. If the governor signs it into law, the first phase will be implemented during the 2016 election cycle and the whole state would have same-day voting in 2018. You can read more about that here.

Steven Olikara of the national Millennial Action Project was traveling and couldn’t be reached, but sent along this statement on getting young people to vote:

The Millennial Generation is idealistic and solutions-focused. But our current political system is gridlocked and stagnant—that pushes many young people away from politics. Yet, it's worth noting that about 23 million young people voted in 2012. The 18-29 year-olds actually outvoted seniors 19 percent to 17 percent. The bigger challenge is getting young people to vote in the non-presidential elections. I believe the solution to that is giving us a compelling reason to vote. Who in public office is working pragmatically to create a better future for us? That's why I believe we need to cultivate and mobilize a new generation of young, dynamic, future-focused political leaders who are delivering results. That's a big part of what we're doing at the Millennial Action Project.