Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in the country in 2008
This despite the fact that President Obama is from the Aloha State
Change the List is trying to increase voter participation there
The project aims to bring attention to places that need it most
Editor’s note: Change the List aims to bring attention to places that need it most. Follow the project on Tumblr.
Elle Cochran grew up far too enchanted by Maui’s rocky coastline and beach-bum lifestyle to care a thing about politics and voting.
“You get up, work, go to the beach, sleep – and do it again,” she said of life on this Hawaiian island, which, of course, is known for its surf. “It’s just this routine.”
But after a real estate project was proposed on Honolua Bay – a cliff-lined cove near her home that’s known for its ruler-straight waves – she decided to do something that’s bizarre for a non-voter. She ran for county council.
“I never voted until I ran for office,” she said.
In other words: The first ballot she cast was for herself.
In what state but Hawaii would that even be possible?
I came to the Aloha State not for the beaches, volcanoes and helicopter tours but because Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation. In the 2008 presidential race, when Barack Obama – Hawaii’s body-surfing, shaka-throwing native son – was at the top of the ticket, fewer than half of eligible Hawaii residents voted. Compare that with the No. 1 civic-minded state, Minnesota, where 78% cast ballots.
We can all agree that’s a problem, right?
No matter how little you care for politics, it seems unhealthy – criminal, some people in Hawaii told me – that such a small slice of the electorate makes decisions that affect the quality of life for everyone in the state, including the majority that doesn’t vote. This is all the more shocking when you consider that more than 90% of registered voters in Hawaii participated in elections for several years after statehood in 1959. People cared about what their newborn state would turn into. Somewhere along the way, enthusiasm died.
Before I came to Hawaii, it was tempting to blame the state’s low turnout on apathetic surfers – and on stereotypes of people who bum their way through life. But eight days, seven flights, three islands (one luau) and dozens of interviews later, I realized there are much-less-obvious forces at play on this island state, too.
I met people like Nani Teruya, a fiery 51-year-old who throws her head back like Kermit the Frog when she laughs. She says the U.S. is illegally occupying Hawaii, and she doesn’t vote on principle. Then there’s Sam Slom, Hawaii’s one and only Republican state senator, who says voters don’t care because it seems like the Democratic Party controls everything in the state. Or Nanci Munroe, 55, who was driving to her polling place during one presidential election when she learned that it didn’t matter how she voted: The winner was announced on her car radio. (Because Hawaii is six hours behind the East Coast, national elections often are called by the news media, and Twitter, before Hawaii finishes voting.)
All of these factors lead people here to feel disconnected from the other 49 states and from politics in general. This place of smoldering volcanoes, house-sized ferns and melt-the-horizon sunsets is just very different from the rest.
“We have nothing in common: language, culture,” said Tama Kaleleiki, whom I met after a church service on Maui where the hymns are sung in Hawaiian and accompanied by a ukulele. The U.S. and Hawaii, he said, are like “apples and bananas.”
This little election-minded romp through paradise was part of a new CNN effort called Change the List. Our tagline: “Bringing change to places that need it most.” We start with a list and then tackle the place at the bottom of the ranks, with the hope not of shaming that place but of starting a conversation that could boost it into higher standings.
That’s a lot of pressure, right? On the trip, I definitely felt it. Throughout the journey – and, let’s be honest, pretty much life – I was plagued with doubt: Is our money-hungry, attack-heavy, non-responsive democracy too far gone? Is apathy too entrenched? What if the choice of candidates isn’t good enough? Does one vote out of millions actually matter? And isn’t surfing more fun than voting, anyway?
I wasn’t sure change was even possible.
’Stop doing nothing?!’
It didn’t help that the first person I met laughed in my face
Against all logic and modern airplane etiquette, I decided to strike up a conversation with the woman seated next to me on the 9-hour, 40-minute flight from Atlanta to Honolulu.
There are (at least) two reasons I should have known better:
1. She had stuffed three bags, one of them a cooler full of food, under the seat in front of her.
2. When I was returning from the bathroom, I saw all 10 of her toes floating in the air above her headrest. She was doing some sort of meditative yoga. Knees in face. Shoes off, wearing pink-and-white-striped socks, the kind that separate toes into creepy foot-fingers.
When she finished the routine, I asked whether she was from Hawaii. She said yes and asked me why I was headed to the Aloha State. For work, I said, being intentionally generic.
“F*** you, maaaaan!” she said.
Toe lady: “You’re taking some local’s job!”
No, no. I tried to explain this project to her: Change the List. Encourage voting. Atlanta resident. Non-surfer. Get it?
Her response was no more comforting.
“You think people are going to stop doing nothing to vote!?”
That’s when she laughed in my face. It was one of those cackles so loud and belly-felt that you can see the person’s gums. Time froze briefly in that moment: me staring at the tartar on her gumline, thinking the whole project was doomed before it began.
’You could eat a sea urchin’
The Maui where Elle Cochran grew up is exactly like the one you picture in your mind, especially if, like me before this trip, you’ve seen “Lilo & Stitch” but never been to Hawaii.
“As a Hawaiian, we are always connected to our environment: to our streams, to the aquatic life, to the mountains,” Cochran said. “Growing up, we could live off the land. You could pick a fruit off the tree. You could go in the ocean and get a fish. You could pick limu, or seaweed, off of rocks. You could eat a sea urchin.”
Cochran, the non-voter who decided to run for the County Council, learned to swim by age 2 or 3. The beach on the west side of Maui, near Lahaina, was her life. She swam and snorkeled, canoed competitively. Drive up and down the coast today, and you see packs of surfers, looking like seals as they bob up and down on the waves.
With so much else to do, Cochran never enjoyed school. It certainly didn’t prepare her to run for the County Council – or to vote. “It wasn’t part of my upbringing,” she said of elections and politics.
Eventually, she left for boarding school in a less-idyllic location: “up-country,” as she says, near a cattle farm. Partly because of the distance, she quit school at 16. The call of the water was too strong, and she didn’t want to be “cooped up in a classroom.”
She went to work as a bartender in a touristy hotel – the one that’s now the Westin Maui – and, over the course of about a decade, got tangled up with drug abuse and the law.
She came out of that experience stronger, she said, and more confident. When she left rehab, she took up a new aquatic hobby: surfing.
The ocean again became her refuge.
’We’re stuck in a vicious cycle’
On my first night in Honolulu, a surprisingly tall, dense city of computer-server-looking buildings backed by misty mountains, I met with a group called Kanu Hawaii.
Kanu, which means “to plant” in Hawaiian, was founded about five years ago by a group of about 40 young people. They’d read a 1970s book called “Hawaii 2000.” That year had come and gone, and modern Hawaii – with its traffic, poverty and low civic engagement – looked nothing like the island paradise outlined there.
They started Kanu Hawaii to try to plant seeds of nonpartisan change.
If anyone knows how to get Hawaii to vote, I thought, it’s surely them.
And if nothing else, they had to be more enthusiastic than the woman on the plane.
A group of mostly young, T-shirt-wearing Kanu volunteers gathered in a community center to discuss strategy. Several pecked at laptops as Kanu’s executive director, James Koshiba, gave a slideshow presentation about the dismal state of voting in Hawaii.
“We’re stuck in a vicious cycle of people who are disappointed in government and politics, and they don’t vote,” he said, pulling up a chart to illustrate this point.
The only way to break this cycle, for politics to be responsive again, he said, is to get people back into politics – and to take money and special interest groups out.
“When people’s voices aren’t there to shape democracy, other forces fill the void.”
To that point, Kanu is trying to increase voter turnout in the state in two ways: by registering people to vote and by going door to door, telling people why voting matters. The group’s goal was to register 900 new voters by November; as of this meeting in late September, they had hit 800. Clipboard-toting volunteers had knocked on 312 doors.
Listening to the presentation, I couldn’t help but be inspired. The numbers do get in the way, though. How can knocking on 312 doors matter in a state of 1.4 million people?
As if reading my mind, Koshiba addressed this point.
When volunteers go door to door, asking people what issues matter to them as well as asking them to vote, they’re “re-knitting” the fabric of communities in Hawaii, he said, some of which has long been fraying. They’re giving anonymous residents a voice.
It seems to be working. Kanu didn’t start working on voter turnout until this year. During the primary, the group targeted House District 48 on Oahu. While voter turnout dropped 1% for the state as a whole, it increased more than 4% in that district, where volunteers canvassed 980 homes, sent 1,000 e-mails and registered 621 new voters.
Still, I wanted to see them in action before I would believe that going up to a random person’s door and asking them to vote would work. Can you imagine if someone knocked on your door, unannounced, and told you it was important to them that you voted?
I wasn’t sure how I would react.
’I thought they were crazy’
It was 2006 when Cochran first heard about the development project.
The pitchmen took her and other surfers out to lunch; they wanted that community’s buy-in. They showed her blueprints for new showers and picnic tables that would benefit the surfers.
“They just dangle the cherry in front of you so you buy what they’re trying to sell.”
At first, the proposed development at Honolua Bay – the pristine, world-renowned surf spot near Cochran’s home on Maui – seemed benign enough. But after doing some research, Cochran and other surfers discovered further plans, not just for showers and tables, she said, but for a golf course and gated community.
She was outraged.
For Cochran, the seeds of civic engagement had been planted when a friend asked her to volunteer with a group that conducts surveys of marine life in protected bays. During those surveys, she felt like she was making a difference, protecting something she loved.
There was little she loved more than Honolua Bay.
She and her husband, surf shop owner Wayno Cochran, who moved to Maui as a teenager because of the surf at Honolua Bay, started the Save Honolua Coalition.
When their efforts to protect the bay seemed to stall out, a friend suggested that Elle run for office. “I thought they were crazy,” she said. She was 45 and had never cast a ballot. From 1984 (Reagan-Mondale) all the way through Obama’s election in 2008, the opportunity passed her by. She wasn’t the kind of person who was into politics – or who had a cause.
But she felt strongly that the bay needed to be protected. So she ran.
Maybe this would be the new her? The surfer turned politician.
Into the voting desert
The Saturday after I met with Kanu’s keyboard-tapping volunteers, I decided to go canvassing with them. We met in the parking lot of a Safeway in downtown Honolulu, near the windward side of the island, which catches most of the rain and, therefore, looks like something out of “Lost” or “Jurassic Park.” Edythe McNamee, the videographer who traveled with me on this trip, kept looking up into the craggy, jungle-covered peaks near the capital and joking that a pterodactyl might swoop out at any moment.
As we crossed a ridge on a two-lane highway, we saw a part of Oahu that most tourists don’t: the leeward side. It’s so dry that it looks like Tucson or suburban L.A.
Joe Heaukulani, 36, one of Kanu’s volunteers, would later explain to me that this desert image also applies to voter turnout rates in the area, known as the Waianae Coast. Kanu tried to make maps of this area showing voters and non-voters by house. But data sets identified only voting households. All of the maps of Waianae, Heaukulani said, were “pretty much blank.” All non-voters.
Our crew regrouped at a picnic table in the neighborhood we were going to canvass, a place of bland, khaki-colored homes with plastic siding. Kanu’s executive director passed out clipboards and colorful folders containing voter registration forms. He also doled out instructions: “A lot of times, it helps to call out away from the door or from the sidewalk – like, ‘Aloha!’ – and people will come meet you halfway.”
You don’t want to startle anyone, he said. And you don’t want to attract angry dogs.
I headed out into the neighborhood with Heaukulani, who looks like a Hawaiian Santa, and Kelsey Amos, 23, who doesn’t. Heaukulani was wearing jeans and shoes because of the dogs. Last time he was in this neighborhood, he said, one chased down his teammate.
I, of course, was wearing shorts and sandals.
The first person we met wasn’t very excited to talk with us.
“I don’t vote. I never did,” said John Mole, a 59-year-old man in a black tank top and flip-flops. He doesn’t register because he doesn’t want to get jury duty.
“I know some of the representatives,” he said. “They don’t want to listen to me, because I don’t vote.”
It was a sobering moment, made sadder by the fact that Mole made the connection.
’Get out the vote’
Before I left for Hawaii, I read three books:
• “Get Out the Vote” by Donald Green and Alan Gerber
• “Mobilizing Inclusion” by Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson
• “The Victory Lab” by Sasha Issenberg
All speak to the power of this idea: Asking someone to vote works.
“In thirty-six of forty-five experiments, canvassing was found to increase turnout,” write Green and Gerber, political science professors at Columbia and Yale, respectively. “Putting all of the evidence together suggests that, as a rule of thumb, one additional vote is produced for every fourteen people who are successfully contacted by canvassers.”
Michelson, from Menlo College in California, told me that some groups – racial minorities, recent immigrants and residents of low-income neighborhoods – don’t feel like people who are supposed to vote in U.S. elections. But if you ask them to participate, she said, that can all change.
“It doesn’t really matter what you say. It doesn’t really matter who asks you,” she said. “The important thing is the personal invitation to participate.”
’Oh, you’re one of us!’
Cochran knew that she would need to court people who never had voted before to win the election for County Council in Maui. She was new. She had to find new voters.
“It was the surfers” who carried me, she said. “I got a few of the surfers to want to vote just because they knew me and I surf with them. That’s definitely a demographic that doesn’t care about that kind of stuff. That was rewarding in itself, just to get someone who didn’t even think to want to vote or care to want to vote. But because they knew me, and they said ‘Oh, you’re one of us! You’re a surfer like us! And you’re going to vote – you’re going to run for office!? I’m going to vote for you. At least I can relate to you.’
“And I’m like, ‘Right on!’ “
Cochran lives in the district of Hawaii with the lowest turnout rate in the state. In the primary election this year, fewer than 15% of registered voters cast ballots in House District 10, which encompasses Lahaina and a moon-shaped slice of West Maui. That’s only 1,961 of 13,254 people, according to numbers compiled for CNN by local data hound Jared Kuroiwa. Elections in a place like that can easily be swayed if a candidate turns out voters who never have participated.
Friends helped Cochran hold campaign events. They passed out stickers that show a silhouette of Cochran “hanging ten” on the end of a surfboard: an impossibly hard move in which the surfer walks to the front end of the board and hangs all 10 toes over the edge. They hoped the campaign would defy the laws of physics, too.
One friend who helped Cochran with these efforts was Nani Teruya, a big-laughing, fast-talking woman who wears a flower above her ear. Teruya went so far as to stand on the highway with Cochran, holding her council signs and waving at commuters.
But when Cochran asked for her vote, Teruya said absolutely not.
To vote, she said, would defy her Hawaiian heritage. She wouldn’t budge.
’I’ll probably mail it out tomorrow’
“Aloha!” Heaukulani hollered from the street. “Hui!”
“Hui” means conversation or meeting. A union. Heaukulani called it out in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, waiting for someone to respond. “Hoooo-EEEEEY.” No answer. A chain-link fence blocked the volunteers from knocking on the door.
That was the seventh house we visited without much luck.
House eight: No one’s home.
“Somebody’s definitely home at the next one,” Amos said, a packet of voter info in hand. But a minivan pulled out of house 10 just as she approached.
“Sorry, we’re on our way out,” said a person in white sunglasses.
A door shut, and the van drove away.
Feeling dejected, we trudged onward, the mid-morning sun stinging our necks. A woman wearing a shirt with a Thai beer logo on the front was sitting in the garage at house 11. The door was open. At least she’d have to look at us before saying no.
Do you vote?
Would you like to register?
Last-ditch effort: Is there an issue important to you?
The volunteers explained that Kanu is asking candidates questions based on the issues identified by the people they meet while canvassing. If the candidates addressed her concern, they told her, they’d report back.
“Oh!” the woman said. I could almost hear her tongue loosening.
She launched into her life story. Her mom, she said, is 86 and lives here. Her mom’s husband was Hawaiian, and that’s why he was able to get a house in this neighborhood, which is reserved for native Hawaiians. But her mother’s husband died recently, and the group that oversees the land wants to throw her mother out.
“Can’t they let her stay until she passes on? It would be so much better,” the woman said. “She knows all the neighbors. She feels safe enough.”
The volunteers asked again. Wouldn’t you like to vote? Your voice could be heard.
After some discussion, the woman, Marlene Joshua, 58, said yes.
Heaukulani handed her a registration form and a stamped envelope.
“I’ll probably mail it out tomorrow,” the woman said, sounding sincere.
That seemed like a real victory. Again, though, I started thinking big picture. By the end of the morning, we had been to 18 houses. Joshua, sitting in her garage, was the only one who agreed to sign up to vote for the first time.
I asked Heaukulani whether that low success rate leaves him feeling dejected, as it had me.
“Even if you convince one person,” he said, “that means you did make a difference.”
I would have to hear his personal story before that was something I could actually believe.
The prince and his cargo shorts
Elle Cochran’s friend greeted me with a sweaty kiss on the cheek. We were standing on the lawn of a white, pitched-roof church surrounded by longneck palm trees. Nani Teruya hurried me inside and into a pew near the back of the small, open-air sanctuary, ceiling fans whirring above.
I was excited to meet her because she seemed like such a contradiction: She knocks on doors for her friend, holds signs with Cochran’s name on them. But she won’t go through with the act of casting a ballot.
I wanted to understand why.
We settled into the back of the church as piano and ukulele music started to play. People sang in Hawaiian.
“E ho’omaika’I kakou ia Ke Akua,” the minister said.
“Come, let us worship God,” the congregation echoed in English.
It wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the service that I realized I was seated right behind a prince – one wearing cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
After the service, I tapped Prince Michael Kauhiokalani on the shoulder and asked if he had a minute to talk. He took me to a field beside the church where an ancient king and queen of the Hawaiian Kingdom, his distant relatives, are buried and entombed.
His sister, Princess Owana Ka’ohelelani, came with us. She brought up an ugly piece of Hawaii’s history: the part when U.S. business interests essentially took over the island nation without the consent of its ruling monarchy.
This thread of Hawaii’s story was new to me when I set off for the islands, but when I landed in Honolulu, the first place I went was Iolani Palace, now a museum. For $12, you can see the upstairs chamber where Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was held on charges of treason, brought by local businessmen. A judge named Sanford Dole basically forced the queen to abdicate the throne in 1895 by promising pardons for her supporters.
The queen’s chamber is haunting. In the center is a bright-colored, ornately stitched quilt Lili’uokalani made during the time she spent as a prisoner in her own home. A palace library also holds the sheet music for songs she wrote, including “Aloha ‘Oe,” which, as Sarah Vowell points out in her smart history of the takeover, was played at the inauguration of Obama, the first U.S. president from Hawaii. (Vowell wonders what the queen would have thought of that moment.)
“It was just a very, very evil thing – an act of war,” Princess Ka’ohelelani told me of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States. “And what does the queen do? She writes a song. She chose to forgive. … She chose a path of peace, love and acceptance.”
That history looms over the present here like morning fog on the mountains. It’s the reason Teruya doesn’t vote. She and others are so upset about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom – which the United States didn’t apologize for until 1993 – that they don’t participate in U.S. elections. They don’t recognize the government. Hawaii only became a state in 1959. Memories are fresh.
The prince and princess invited me to stay for lunch at the church. After grabbing a plate of rice, cabbage and fried chicken – typically international fare – we sat at a table with Teruya. I brought up the subject of voting to see where everyone stood on the topic.
“I can voice myself in many, many different ways,” Teruya said, defending her decision not to vote. She later would tell me that if she cast a ballot, she would feel like she lost part of her Hawaiian identity. “I don’t need to sign that piece of paper.”
I felt silly and small in that moment. Who was I to come to Hawaii to encourage people to vote when at least some chunk of the population feels voting is morally wrong? Maybe the most appropriate political statement, in this case, is to withhold a vote.
But the prince made a strong rebuttal.
If you don’t vote, he said, then how could the Hawaiian Kingdom be restored?
’I think I got 12 votes’
Personal experience taught Joe Heaukulani that asking a person to vote works.
The evening after we went canvassing in Oahu’s voter desert, I met Heaukulani at his brother’s high-rise apartment building in Waikiki, the ritzy, touristy area of Honolulu. He never cast a ballot himself until age 34. No one had ever asked him to, he said, and politics just wasn’t something he thought much about. He was more into video games. But then, in 2010, he saw a link to Kanu’s website shared via Twitter. He clicked it and found a page that asked him to make a pledge to vote for the first time.
For whatever reason, he said yes. That decision was the start of an incredible transformation. It led to his current hobby: spending weekends convincing other people that their votes matter. And, like Cochran, he eventually ran for office.
I didn’t find out about this side of Heaukulani from him; he was too modest to bring it up. Another volunteer ratted him out.
Heaukulani ran this year as a nonpartisan candidate for Hawaii House District 20. He had no money to fund his campaign, so he walked door to door in his district, asking his would-be constituents about the issues that mattered most.
“I think I got 12 votes,” he told me.
But, as I wrote on the “Change the List” Tumblr, that’s not the point.
He joined the democratic process. He helped close the loop.
He proved, to me if no one else, that one person could make a considerable difference.
The ‘silent majority’
Portraits of the Maui County Council members hang on the wall in the county office building in Wailuku, on the northwest part of the island. The nine photographs are presented in a grid, like “Hollywood Squares.” Elle Cochran is in the center square, wearing a pink blazer. She’s the only one in the bunch not wearing black or blue.
She’s different. She knows that. She’s the surfer politician.
It’s how she won: by mobilizing that “silent majority,” as she calls it.
That, of course, included herself. She cast her first ballot in the 2010 primary election and her second in the general, both by mail. She’s never been to a polling place.
Cochran and her husband had put their lives on the line for the election by tossing in $40,000 to fund her campaign. Now they want to see it pay off.
But being in office doesn’t mean Cochran can accomplish anything she wants. The council she sits on recently voted against putting preservation status on a tract of land along Honolua Bay, the body of water that inspired her to run for office.
“Many times, I am on the losing end of the votes,” she said. “Yeah, it’s frustrating, yeah, it’s heartbreaking, but, you know, you move on.” The positive outcome, even when she loses a vote, she said, is that the community becomes aware of the issues.
Maui Land & Pineapple Co., which owns that piece of land, declined to comment for this story. Angus McKelvey, the state representative from the area, said giving the bay conservation status would have the unintended consequence of lowering its market value, and therefore devaluing pensions for people from Maui Land & Pineapple.
The smarter move would be for the state or federal government to purchase the land with cash, so that the pensions would be protected, he said. Despite his disagreements with Cochran on these issues, he praised her ability to interest new people in politics.
Turnout will likely be higher because of it, he said. “Hopefully the surf won’t be breaking” on Election Day, McKelvey said, otherwise people might not show up at the polls in West Maui.
Another reason Save Honolua has been so effective: Facebook.
Online campaigns have been so successful that Wayno Cochran, Elle’s headband-and-ponytail-wearing surfer husband, says online or text-message-based elections would revive the political system in West Maui. Fewer than a third of young voters in Hawaii, ages 18 to 29, cast ballots in the 2008 election, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That’s compared with 51% for young voters in the country as a whole. Digital tools would change that, he said.
“Texting would work. Everybody would vote. It would change everything. You would have young politicians. You wouldn’t have 88-year-old senators.”
I asked Wayno Cochran what West Maui would be like if everybody voted, not just the older people and those with money. He had a John Lennon sort of moment. “One hundred percent different world,” he said. “We wouldn’t have wars; we would be self-sustaining. … If everybody voted, you’d have great candidates. You’d have great choices.”
The subtext: More people like Elle Cochran might care, and they might discover that they do sooner.
’We’re just very one-sided in Hawaii’
After hearing Heaukulani’s transformation from non-voter to political candidate, I was convinced that asking a person to vote – just putting out the invitation – was the key to increasing voter participation in Hawaii and maybe in the rest of the country, too.
But then I encountered another roadblock: people who register to vote but then, for a variety of reasons, stop participating after a certain number of years.
Here are five of the most common, based on my unscientific wanderings:
• People are fed up with the Electoral College. Hawaii has only four votes, which makes people feel like they don’t matter on the national scene. (An average American vote has a one in 60 million chance of determining a national election, says Columbia University. Hawaii’s odds are “nearly zero.”)
• Locals are sick of hearing who will be the next president of the United States before their polls close. That happens at 6 p.m. local time, or midnight in Washington. The state feels like a complete afterthought on the national scene.
• They’re good at statistics. By that I mean they realize their one vote rarely would decide the outcome of an election. (Counterpoint: The Hawaii House District 4 primary was decided by three votes; make two friends, and you could swing it.)
• They don’t trust the polls. Michael Remen, from the Big Island of Hawaii, loved voting and talking politics until he spent an hour and a half just trying to cast a ballot in the primary this year. There was such confusion that he left, and he is so frustrated he doesn’t plan to vote in November. Several polling places on the Big Island also opened as much as 90 minutes late, causing voters to be turned away. The whole thing was such a mess that the state has stepped in to help run the elections in November. That’s great, but it’s not enough to sway Remen.
• Finally, they’re sick of the Democratic Party’s dominance in the state.
Of these, No. 5 is the excuse I heard most often and most passionately.
“We’re just very one-sided in Hawaii, and it has been that way for close to four decades now,” said Nacia Blom, executive director of the Republican Party of Hawaii.
Essentially, Hawaii is a one-party state.
Around the time of statehood, Democrats and labor unions rose to power by standing up for the rights of pineapple and sugar plantation workers. That historical clout has lasted decades. With few exceptions – Linda Lingle’s 2002 election as governor is one, and she’s running this year for a U.S. Senate seat – Democrats have dominated all levels of government ever since. In 2008, 72% of Hawaii’s voters picked Obama for president. Only District of Columbia voters chose him by a wider margin. The state has given its electoral votes to Republicans only twice in its history: in 1984 and 1972.
There’s a general sense in Hawaii that the Democratic Party, and the unions that support it, decide elections behind the scenes, before people vote.
It’s hard not to find some truth to that when you talk to people like Laura Thielen, whom I met one morning on the side of a highway. She was waving to commuters and smiling while holding a sign with her name on it. This sign-waving tradition, as it’s called here, emerged in part because Hawaii bans billboard advertisements.
Thielen told me the Democrats didn’t want her to run on their party ticket because she hadn’t been a member of the organization long enough. That seems suspect because her mother is a prominent Republican, and Thielen worked under a Republican governor. She says she’s always espoused Democratic values, she just hadn’t registered with the organization, since Hawaii has an open primary voting system.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have lots of trouble finding candidates who want to sign up. Seventeen of 51 state House races and 10 of 25 Senate races are uncontested because the Republicans did not put up a challenger, said Blom, from the Republican Party.
The state party’s goal is to triple the number of Republicans in Hawaii’s Senate.
That sounds ambitious. But right now, there’s only one Republican in the state Senate: Sam Slom, one of the feistiest politicians in the state.
“The lesson in all this is one party, whether it be Republican or Democrat, is not good for any living being,” said Slom, whom I described on the “Change the List” blog as the likeable, less-bat-like version of Ross Perot. He is on every state Senate committee – and he’s the minority leader, obviously. He’s the only dissenting voice.
“We’ve got Republicans who are scared of being Republicans,” he said, adding that many Republicans don’t put their party affiliation on their campaign signs.
Without real choices between people with conflicting ideas, what’s the point in voting?
’But I vote!’
Edythe and I slid down to the edge of Honolua Bay at sunset.
We wanted to see the place that had turned a 40-something non-voter into a candidate.
It was certainly a sight to take in. The air smelled of salt and pine. The sky swirled with pinks and oranges. Far on the horizon, you could see the neighbor islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i, purple humpbacks that looked to be painted on the sky.
From the road, high above, we had spotted two young women surfing. We followed a gently used trail down the cliffs and to the water’s edge, the rocks changing from coarse sandpaper to something with the texture of ice. It was difficult to keep our footing, but eventually we made it, camera in tow. It’s easy to see why this bay is beloved: It’s hard for tourists to scamper down.
At the volcanic shoreline, I stood on a black rock, waves crashing at my feet, and called out to the surfers. It felt like a scene out of a bad romantic comedy.
“We’re doing a story … (Crash!) … about voting!” “Could you talk to us for just a min … (Crash) … ute?” “It’s for CNN!”
One of the women yelled back, asking more about the story.
I told her we were in West Maui because so few people vote.
“But I vote!”
All the more reason to talk.
Alice Woodrow and Christine Brennan, both 27, told us they had heard about the Save Honolua campaign on Facebook and through friends. The issue is so hotly debated among surfers and young people, they said, that people talk about the preservation status of the bay while they’re floating out in its waters, waiting to catch a wave.
Thank you, Internet.
The other person who got tagged in this Honolua Facebook campaign was Nani Teruya’s daughter. Teruya, remember, is the woman who campaigned for Elle Cochran but won’t vote because she says the U.S. government is illegitimate here. Her daughter, however, approached her mom one day and asked whether she could register to vote. She had heard about the Honolua campaign on the social network and wanted to participate.
To my surprise, Teruya told her daughter yes. She wanted her daughter to have her own voice and to make her own decision about politics and the United States.
Cochran considers this to be one of her greatest accomplishments.
She brought up this story when I asked her whether the turnout would be higher in November. Teruya’s daughter, she said, passed out 30 or 40 voter registration forms to friends. This is the daughter of a woman who refuses to vote – who never has participated.
“I think that alone says something,” Cochran said.
’Boozy’ on ballot day
When I started doing research on what makes people vote, I came across what at first seemed like an awesome idea: shaming them into it.
Hear me out. In the 1800s, voting was a “boozy, men’s only” event “where men packed onto courthouse steps to select their leaders with raised hands or words bellowed over the din,” as Sasha Issenberg writes in “The Victory Lab.”
The important part is not the booze, which no doubt would be out of place in our sterile, modern polling locations. It’s that voting was public. All of your neighbors could see whether you showed up at those courthouse steps and raised your hand.
If you didn’t, you’d be embarrassed in front of friends and family.
Today, whether a person votes is public record. While we were in West Maui, Edythe and I actually used those public records to do a scavenger hunt of sorts, tracking down non-voters. But my guess is that most people don’t even know that info exists.
Academics do. Two Yale researchers and one from the University of Northern Iowa conducted an experiment in 2006 to prove the power of these records. They sent mailers out to homes before the Michigan primary that included bits of scary information: whether they had voted in the past and whether their neighbors had, too. The mailers suggested that another letter would come after the election, telling all of the person’s neighbors whether he or she made it to the polls for the primary.
Public shaming worked. Those people were 8% more likely to vote, which may not sound like much but is a huge and significant number in the world of voter turnout rates.
This year, The Atlantic used this information to argue for the United States to “abolish the secret ballot.” It’s a compelling argument and a sexy one. But, after going to Hawaii, I don’t think it would work. The public backlash would be too strong. And who wants to vote simply because they’re afraid of looking bad in front of their neighbors?
Instead, serious efforts to boost voter participation must be hard-fought over the long term. As many people in the state told me, there’s no silver bullet.
But there are some winning solutions, no matter how difficult. They include:
• Improving the education system. Hawaii should require students to learn about civics and voting. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 32% of U.S. high school seniors did not learn about voting, political parties or elections. Those lessons are being taught in some Hawaii classrooms, like that of Jason Duncan at Mililani High School. I watched him engage students in a lively conversation about the importance of voting; 16-year-old Demaleena Long left the class determined to vote when she’s able. Before that, she “didn’t think it mattered.” She is one of the lucky ones, however. Many students don’t get that message – and they risk turning into non-voting, checked-out adults.
• Eliminating the Electoral College. People in Hawaii are right when they say their votes don’t matter in presidential elections. A true popular vote would help fix that, and it would reduce the degree to which Hawaii’s time zone matters.
• Moving toward online elections. It sounds crazy, but it has worked elsewhere. Markham, Ontario, has used online voting since 2003. As my colleague Doug Gross wrote, one report says turnout has increased after the switch. Security is a concern, but it’s no reason not to push forward, and quickly.
• Implementing same-day voter registration. As long as people are going to have to schlep down to the polls, they should be able to register on Election Day as well. As a Wellesley College professor wrote in The New York Times: “Minnesota implemented same-day registration, and its 2008 presidential turnout rate topped the nation at 78%.” A similar move could help Hawaii.
• Moving voter registration online. Hawaii, thankfully, plans to take this step in 2016. For now, however, Hawaii’s mail-in forms are needlessly cumbersome. They require full Social Security numbers, for example, which citizens rightly are wary of giving out to volunteers who might help them with the applications. Eleven states support online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. There’s no compelling reason that number shouldn’t be 50.
None of these is as easy as shaming a person into voting. But they could be as effective.
’It’s not something that we’re ignoring’
The pickup kicked gravel at our shins as the two young surfers pulled away. Edythe and I left Honolua Bay after dark and drove back into Lahaina. Our last stop for the day would be a mayor’s budget meeting in a local community center.
I expected to find only a handful of people. But we walked into a packed meeting with more than 100 people. It became immediately clear that nearly all of them had come to talk about Honolua Bay.
“Why don’t you guys come up here so we can kind of talk story, because I know this is a major issue,” the mayor of Maui said, inviting the crowd to gather at the front.
“It’s not something that we’re ignoring,” he said before giving an update about how the county is trying to come up with the money to buy back the land.
Dozens of people gave impassioned pleas about why they want to save the bay.
I couldn’t help thinking that this is what democracy in Hawaii should look like: everyday people caring so much about an issue that they give up an evening to talk about it. That’s so much more difficult than voting. Curious, I asked one man who looked like he was almost moved to tears by the debate whether he voted. “Of course,” he said.
The scene made me think how close non-voters are to this kind of action – and the power that one person like Elle Cochran has had to mobilize them. It was only two short years ago that she was in her mid-40s and had never participated in politics in any way. That night, she was called upon, wearing a band of flowers around her head, to give technical updates about the disputed land’s agricultural status and what that means.
I also thought back to all of the non-voters I met on this trip.
They’re people like Kuulei Davis, 28, who was sitting beneath a shade tree on a beach near Lahaina. You could see paddle boarders and sailboats in the distance. She told me voting and civic engagement don’t mesh with the laid-back lifestyle in Hawaii. “We just kind of keep it real simple,” she told me. “Politics and all that stuff, on an island like this? It doesn’t flow very well.”
That’s not true, of course. Many non-voters I met cared deeply about political issues, but there were barriers to their participation or no one had asked them to join the conversation. When I asked Davis whether she wanted to sign up to vote for the first time – after all, she’s concerned about over-development of Maui and about her friends who have to work three jobs to pay the high rent rates here – she said yes.
Why did you cave in so easily?
“Well,” she said. “You asked.”
How to help
If you want to be part of the solution, here are four small ways to help:
• Participate in “Convince Me to Vote!” Send messages to these five-non voters I met in Hawaii and ask them to vote for the first time.
• Are you a first-time voter? Make a public pledge to vote by uploading a photo of yourself to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #changethelist. It will show up on this auto-updating photo wall, powered by Chute.
• Make a pledge to vote with CNN’s “I’m voting” Facebook app. Research shows that if Facebook friends see you’re voting, it encourages them to do so, too.
• Know someone in Hawaii? Share this “Mahalo for Voting!” image on social media. Send it to five of your friends and ask them to pass it on.
Together, we can change the list.