8 reasons Hawaii doesn't vote

Signs of political life are visible on Oahu, but most don't participate in elections.

Story highlights

  • Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in 2008
  • CNN is doing stories on the state to try to boost participation
  • An ugly history, Democratic dominance and time zones are to blame
  • And, sure, there are some apathetic surfers in the state, too
Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in the United States in 2008, with fewer than half of the eligible population casting ballots. When I traveled to the state to find out why, I thought most of the problem might be apathy. The surfer thing, you know?
That is part of it, to be sure. But there are many reasons America's 50th state doesn't vote as much as the other 49, plenty of them specific to Hawaii.
Here's a bite-sized look at eight. If you want to be part of the solution, help us change the list by convincing these five people to vote for the first time, making a pledge to vote or sharing this "Mahalo for Voting!" image on Tumblr or Facebook.
And, as if I'm not asking enough already, let me know what you think of this list in the comments section at the bottom of the story. If you have other ideas, I may add them.
1. Surfer apathy: I'll start with the obvious one. It's true that some people are so wrapped up in Hawaii's beaches and waves that they don't care about politics. One woman told me politics don't "flow" in oh-so-laid-back Hawaii. A state representative in Maui said he looks at swell reports before Election Day. If the waves are big, he said, he knows turnout will be low.
2. Ugly history: A fair number of Native Hawaiian people consider the U.S. to be illegitimately occupying Hawaii, and some don't vote on principle. One woman told me that part of her identity as a Native Hawaiian would be diluted if she cast a ballot. The U.S. apologized in 1993 for its unlawful takeover of the islands, but resentment remains.
3. When it's 6 p.m. in Hawaii, it's midnight in Washington: The Aloha State is six hours behind Eastern Time. By the time its polls close, presidents often have been declared. One woman who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii told me she was driving from work to her polling place when she heard the winner of a presidential race announced on the radio. She turned the car around and drove home without voting. In the bigger picture, the time zone issue -- and the thousands of miles of ocean that come with it -- leave Hawaii feeling detached from national politics. The U.S. and Hawaii are like "apples and bananas," one man told me. The state feels like an afterthought.
4. It's basically a one-party state: Who wants to vote if it seems like there's no real choice to be made? Democrats have dominated politics in Hawaii for decades. Many races in the state are uncontested because the Republicans can't find candidates to run in them. Currently, there's only one Republican in Hawaii's state Senate. The state's electoral votes have gone to Republican presidential candidates only twice in history.
5. Polling places can't be trusted: That's the feeling at least on the Big Island of Hawaii. During the primary election this year, some polling places opened an hour and a half late because voter registries hadn't been delivered to the polling stations. The state is stepping in to try to make sure November elections are conducted with more professionalism. But I met a sous-chef in Hilo who said that's too little, too late. He doesn't trust the polls because he had so much trouble voting before.
6. People don't identify as voters: I found it fascinating that many people in Hawaii don't vote at least in part because they don't see themselves as the type of people who participate in civil society. A 36-year-old man told me he never voted until two years ago, when he found a website asking people to pledge to vote. It was that simple. Once someone invited him into the system, he participated. No one had asked before. He ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives in the primary election this year.
7. The schools are bad: I heard from many adults in Hawaii that the school system does not do a good job teaching young people about politics and how decisions made by politicians affect their day-to-day lives. There are exceptions, of course, like Jason Duncan's class at a high school near Honolulu. There, I met a young woman who said she didn't see the importance of voting until Duncan led a conversation on the topic. But the state should do a better job educating the next generation of voters.
8. Election laws make it too hard to register: There are plenty of available tools that would make voting easier in Hawaii, including same-day voter registration, which would let people walk into a polling place on election day, register and vote right then; and online registration, which Hawaii plans to implement in 2016. I heard time and again from non-voters that they didn't have a clue about how to register. States like Minnesota that have implemented progressive registration policies see higher turnout rates. That state topped the list, with a 78% participation rate.