As primary election day nears Saturday, I find myself increasingly anxious, even a bit fearful. My political preferences, which I choose not to share publicly, are only part of the reason. What concerns me most is our community’s dubious distinction of having the lowest voter turnout in the nation.
Hawaii has consistently held the bottom spot in turnout for presidential elections, presumably because those contests are decided even before our polls close. But that doesn’t explain the apparent apathy over local races.
It wasn’t always like this. Statistics from the State Office of Elections show that in 1960, the year after Hawaii became the 50th state, 94 percent of Maui County’s registered voters cast general election ballots. Voter turnout remained in the 80 percentile range until 1996, when it dipped to 63 percent. The rate has been declining ever since.
While there’s no lack of passion and commitment among today’s candidates and campaigners, the general public seems to have grown complacent. In the 1960s, though I was far too young to vote, the months leading up to elections were exciting times for all of us. I remember huge rallies with free food, Hawaiian music and lively speeches. Social media consisted of trucks and vans armed with loudspeakers, cruising neighborhood streets as they blared their messages. Even we kids knew who was running for each office and who our parents would be voting for. On Election Day, entire families would go to the polls together, then on to election night parties to wait for the results on the radio.
But my favorite campaign memory comes from the early 1980s, when highway sign-waving was a new trend. My father had served as campaign manager for several friends who successfully ran for County Council and state legislative offices. The last campaign he managed was for a first-time council candidate whose supporters were enthusiastic but inexperienced. They eagerly volunteered to wave signs, so Daddy’s best friend and fellow campaigner set them up on Kahului Beach Road.
After instructing them to smile and wave at each passing car, Uncle Louie drove off to his next stop. Glancing in his rearview mirror, he was horrified to see the two women giving the one-finger salute to a passing motorist. He pulled a U-turn, jumped out of his car and asked, incredulously, “What the heck are you doing?!”
They replied, “Ho, we wave at them, but they no wave back!”
According to County Clerk Danny Mateo, there are 95,000 registered voters in Maui County. For this election, his office sent out over 27,000 absentee ballots. In 2016, about half of the folks who voted did so in absentia. Total voter turnout was slightly over 50 percent in the general election and less than 30 percent in the primary.
Improving voter turnout is a priority for Mateo, and he is hoping that recent changes in the election process will help. This year, his office has moved early walk-in voting from the county building to the more easily accessible Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku. Walk-in voting started July 30 and although turnout has been low, Mateo is hopeful that more people will take advantage of the opportunity this week. Thursday is the last day of early walk-in voting, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Not registered? No problem. Hawaii now has same-day registration. All you need is a photo ID.
Personally, I prefer going to the polls on Election Day. I get chicken skin every time I step into the booth, although I miss the old punch cards. And the 5 percent discount that Longs Drugs used to give shoppers who showed their voting stubs.
I don’t mean to lecture or nag, but I do hope you exercise your right to vote. Oh, and don’t forget to wave at the folks holding signs on the highway.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.