Use It or Lose It

We’re so concerned with spreading democracy to other countries, but can’t be bothered to use it here at home.

When I was a little girl, my mother always took me with her when she went to vote. One of those small, but vital, gestures parents make; it taught me that it’s a grownup’s responsibility to show up and make a decision. I always vote, because of her, and because of my grandmother, who was already 14 years old when women received the right to vote in 1920. I also vote for the women I see in photos, shrouded by burquas. I can’t imagine looking one of them in the eye and confessing that I had civil rights she’d only dream of, but didn’t have the time or energy to use them.

I get pretty fired up when I hear things like, “I meant to vote, but…” or, “Politics isn’t really my thing.” The numbers are just as flabby as the excuses; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hawai‘i came in dead last in participation. Only a little over 50 percent of our state’s voting-age citizens voted in the November 2004 election. (The overall national rate for November 2004 was 64 percent, up from 60 percent in 2000.)

Some will say we don’t vote because there are no good politicians to vote for. But there have been leaders of all kinds—charismatic or insipid, Nobel Prize-winning or nitwit—ever since Caesar first tied on his toga. You can’t just assume all politicians are lousy. We hear about the indicted, and the guys who won’t keep their pants zipped, but we rarely think about the rest, who are slogging through 1,300 legislative proposals and endless meetings.

photo: FPG/Getty Images

Others say we don’t vote because there’s less at stake—Hawai‘i’s labor-rights movement, for example, drove people to the polls. Now we’re too busy driving to the mall. But our country’s conflicts are multiplying like Medusa’s locks—cross one off the list, like the war in Afghanistan, and up sprouts a nuclear Iran, a trigger-happy North Korea or, uh, Afghanistan. You really don’t have an opinion on the wars we wage, the taxes on your house or whether our roads are passable? Nope, I think the problem is simple laziness.

The good news is that our state’s voter registration numbers are up this year, and many groups are trying to nudge citizens into action. Jan Dill, a leader with the nonpartisan Hawaiian Vote 2006, hopes that issues such as Kamehameha Schools’ legal battle, sovereignty and environmental concerns will galvanize Native Hawaiians. “If we can get a couple of thousand more to vote, we’ll be happy. We’re trying to let them know it’s their right, and it’s their responsibility.”

In Australia, you have to vote, or you’ll pay a fine. (And yes, you can vote for “none of the above.”) Australia boasts a 95-percent turnout rate. The last time Hawai‘i mustered that kind of passion was for American Idol, with 5.9 million calls made for Jasmine Trias in May 2004. Maybe we should vote for politicians by phone.

Actually, it’s almost that easy right now. According to Rex Quidilla, a spokesperson for the state Office of Elections, one out of every three Island voters used a mail-in ballot or an early-vote site in the last election. And a state-run Web site,, has everything you need to be an informed voter, from maps of polling places to information on who is running for what (click on “Candidates”).

Please, take a few minutes to look at some of the candidates, and vote for someone who doesn’t make your hair stand on end. Don’t vote just because you should, vote because, unlike millions of people in the world, you can.