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Hawaii ties for last in voting (hooray!?)

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 1:30 PM EST, Mon December 10, 2012
Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in 2008; it tied for last place in 2012.
Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in 2008; it tied for last place in 2012.
  • In Hawaii and West Virginia, 44.2% of voters cast ballots in November
  • The two states tied for the lowest voter turnout rate
  • CNN's Change the List was trying to boost Hawaii's turnout
  • The state ranked 50th in 2008; it moved into a tie for 49th this year

(CNN) -- Hawaii tied West Virginia for 49th place in voter turnout in the November election -- and I'm pretty pumped about it.

That may seem like a strange thing to be excited about, or even to know about, but hear me out on this: Since September, I've been writing about Hawaii's lowest-of-the-low voter turnout rate for a new CNN project called Change the List. The goal, as the project name spells out in even-Ke$ha-can-understand terms (sorry, Ke$ha, I'm sure you're smart, but that dollar sign ...), was to bump Hawaii off the bottom of that list. And I wanted to do that with your help.

Dozens -- probably hundreds -- of you responded, making online pledges to vote for the first time and sending sometimes-pestering, sometimes-sweet messages to six nonvoters in Hawaii whose stories we highlighted on this website.

Change the List: 47 of your pro-voting arguments

In the end, both Hawaii and West Virginia registered turnout rates of 44.2%*, according to Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University who runs a site called the United States Election Project. Both states -- and many others -- saw a decline in turnout from the 2008 election. Nationwide, turnout dropped by about 3%, McDonald said by phone. (It's impossible to be more precise because several states still haven't submitted their certified turnout numbers; blame funding and mail-in ballots for that, he said.) Hawaii's turnout dropped 4.6%, by comparison.

That sounds like bad news. And, in some respects, it is. The situation at some polling places didn't make it easy to vote. More than two dozen of them on the island of Oahu alone ran out of ballots on Election Day. A polling place volunteer at one elementary school told me he had to start handing out Japanese-language ballots to English speakers just to keep the line moving. The state should institute same-day voter registration and other reforms that would encourage new voters to go to the polls.

But if the goal of this project was for Hawaii not to be ranked 50th out of 50 states, then a tie for 49th has to be seen as some sort of victory. If nothing else, it's a step in the right direction.

Plus, your participation in this effort resulted in several unequivocal successes. My favorite: A single message from a Facebook fan of CNN iReport persuaded Michael Remen, a sous-chef in Hilo, Hawaii, to vote. He told me he wouldn't have cast a ballot otherwise.

Here's the note that did the trick: "Send him a free ticket to Arlington Cemetery and (show) him how many reasons there are to vote, since all those there died for that right, here and abroad."

Three of the six nonvoters we featured decided to vote because of your messages. Of course, six people won't move the needle on a state's voter turnout rate, but those three people's voices were heard by their government when they otherwise wouldn't have been.

CNN, of course, can't take credit for the people who woke up in Hawaii, way out in the middle of the Pacific, on November 6 and decided to vote. This project received ample coverage in local news, and for that I'm very grateful to websites like Civil Beat and TV stations like KITV for spreading the word about Hawaii's low voter turnout rate. But voting ultimately is an intensely personal act. The people who really can improve Hawaii's voting record are those who live in Hawaii and who want to make a difference.

They're people like Elle Cochran, who never voted until an issue moved her so much that she decided to run for office. She now is a county councilwoman in Maui. And they're people like Joe Heaukulani, who goes door to door on Oahu trying to persuade people to vote -- for any candidate, regardless of political party.

There are people like that in every state, working to make the U.S. government more accountable to all of its people. Progress may be slow, but thinking back on this project I'm reminded of something Heaukulani said while I was canvassing with him. "Even if you convince one person," he said, "that means you did make a difference."

Thanks to all of you who were a part of that difference. We'll do it again soon.

*Data nerd note: The voter turnout rates are rounded to one decimal place because of a margin of error associated with voting-eligible population data and with prison population estimates, McDonald said. "Really, all of it has a measure of uncertainty."

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