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Hawaii maybe-possibly-hopefully changed the list

By John D. Sutter, CNN
November 7, 2012 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
Volunteers from Kanu Hawaii go door to door asking people on Oahu's Waianae Coast to vote.
Volunteers from Kanu Hawaii go door to door asking people on Oahu's Waianae Coast to vote.
  • Hawaii may rank 49th for voter turnout this year; instead of 50th
  • Professor: Hawaii and West Virginia are "dukeing it out" for last place
  • CNN's Change the List has been trying to start a conversation about Hawaii's low turnout
  • Several polling places in Hawaii ran out of ballots, according to news reports

(CNN) -- Sigh. For the last month, I've been telling you about politics in Hawaii, the state that had the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation four years ago. The goal of me typing and typing and typing about the state's voters was the hope that CNN could start a conversation that maybe -- just maybe -- would lead to the state magically bouncing out of last place.

It's now the morning after Election Day. And while it's still unclear whether Hawaii will finish last place for voting, preliminary estimates do offer a ray of hope. According to Michael McDonald, an election results guru at George Mason University, Hawaii likely will slip past West Virginia, handing over the title of the "state that doesn't vote." It feels too early and too odd to celebrate, though, especially given the calamity that ensued in Hawaii on Tuesday.

I'll get to that soon. First, let's look at the numbers. Nationally, voter turnout was down compared to the 2008 presidential election -- with something like 60% of the nation's eligible voters casting ballots for president this year, McDonald said, compared to 62% four years ago. You could argue several reasons why that's the case, from Superstorm Sandy, which depressed turnout in the northeast, to lower-than-expected enthusiasm among Republicans. Not all of the ballots have been counted, but based on projections from McDonald, Hawaii's turnout rate may land in the ballpark of 46.9%. He expects West Virginia's turnout to be slightly lower, at 46.1%.

"It really is a race to the bottom right now," he said.

"We would be in a recount situation if this were a presidential election," he said by phone on Wednesday morning. "It's close enough we need to wait to see what the final reports are, but in this case Hawaii has sort of staked out a lead here and it would be unlikely for West Virginia to come from behind. But it's possible."

Voter turnout rates in both states sunk compared to 2008, when 48.8% of eligible people in Hawaii voted in the presidential race, and 49.9% of people in West Virginia did.

It's too easy to strike up those low turnout rates to apathy. A story headlined "Hawaii voter turnout drops even lower" on the Honolulu news site Civil Beat suggested that voters in the Aloha State are too checked-out to care. "Hot races including a tight contest involving our own homegrown presidential contender couldn't shake Hawaii voters' continued apathy toward elections," wrote Alia Wong.

I can see where she's coming from. But I think the assessment that Hawaii's (or West Virginia's) voter turnout rate is attributable simply to apathy is at best, reductive. At worst, offensive.

Superstorm Sandy pummeled West Virginia one week ago, no doubt decreasing the likelihood that people would trudge out to the polls. And in Hawaii, as Wong goes on to explain, several polling places ran out of ballots, leaving long lines of voters to wait for elections officials to bring in electronic voting machines. Wong references an official from Hawaii's Green Party who says, in her words, the ballot shortage "deterred hundreds of people from casting their ballots." That should infuriate any American, especially since similar issues reportedly plagued voters in other states on Tuesday.

"We can appreciate that people lose patience with the process, and we're very sorry it occurred," a spokesman for Hawaii's election office told Civil Beat.

I'm going to pretend it's Election Day 2000 and settle into a wait-and-see mode before I give any kind of final-seeming assessment of voter turnout in Hawaii. For one, ballots are still being counted, particularly those sent by mail. I also want to talk to people in the state about what happened at the polls -- why, exactly, some precincts ran out of ballots, and what people there think about the situation.

McDonald, the voting guru, expects Hawaii to hop out of last place despite the fact that its turnout, like that for the rest of the country, declined. "Woohoo," he said, sarcastically. Given polling place issues in the state and the fact that there are potentially hundreds of disenfranchised voters on the island of Oahu, it's hard for me to summon much enthusiasm, either.

Still, and no matter the outcome, I'm immensely proud of nonpartisan groups like Kanu Hawaii that go door to door in low-voting areas and encourage people to cast ballots. They're the ones who are going to change attitudes toward voting in Hawaii. And in the long term, they're the ones who will change the list.

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