Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Gabbard dispatches voter forms

May 10, 2014
In The News

By Derrick DePledge

May 10, 2014


U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, concerned about Hawaii's low voter turnout, is sending out voter registration forms to more than 76,500 residents who are not registered for the August primary.

The Hawaii Demo­crat also included a personal message explaining that people have the chance to make a profound impact in their community by registering. The congresswoman used her official mass-mailing privilege -- known as "franking" -- to send the taxpayer-financed mailers on voter registration, an idea she got from some of her colleagues in Congress.

"Both in Hawaii as well as around the country, it's clear that there are so many people's voices that are not being heard simply because they are either not registered to vote or they're not actually turning out," Gabbard said by phone from Washington, D.C. "We see the impacts of this in a very real way on a daily basis, especially here in Congress, and especially in a nonpresidential election year.

"So I think that we all have a collective responsibility to do something about that, to get people registered to vote, to make it as easy and convenient as possible for them to get to vote, understanding that people have a lot of demands on their time, whether it's work or family or kids or whatever it is. The more barriers that we can reduce to getting people involved is a great first step."

Hawaii, which had some of the highest rates of voter participation in the nation after statehood, is now among the lowest in voter turnout.

Voter turnout in the 2012 election was 62 percent of the state's 705,668 registered voters. When measured by people who are eligible to vote, turnout was 44.5 percent, the lowest in the nation.

Turnout for the primary in 2012 was 42.3 percent of the 687,500 registered voters.

Political analysts have suggested that low turnout is the result of the political dominance by Demo­crats since statehood and the lack of competitive elections. While there have been several compelling election campaigns in recent years, and campaigns have become more sophisticated at identifying infrequent voters and getting them to vote, turnout has not improved.

Research by George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and others has shown that young people, in particular, respond better to appeals to vote when approached in person by a peer, through phone banks where the scripts are more conversational, and through online outreach that is interactive.

Gabbard said many people who do not vote, in Hawaii and across the country, are frustrated. "They don't necessarily always see the results for what their lawmakers are doing," she said, "and therefore may not see the direct connection, or feel that motivation, as to why they should actually take the time to go out and vote."

Pat Saiki, chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said she would make voter registration a priority for the GOP this year. "Our state has the lowest voter participation of any state in the nation. We should be ashamed and embarrassed that less than 50 percent of our registered voters have taken the trouble to participate in elections," she said in a statement. "Under my leadership the party has launched a voter registration drive across the state. We are taking a decentralized approach and taking the challenge through the party ranks to energize voter participation."

The state Office of Elections, in addition to the routine public service announce­ments that encourage people to register to vote, is examining voter registration data by state House districts and precincts. The state is looking to identify areas where registration is below average, and then plans to mail registration forms to households where there are no registered voters.

The deadline to register for the August primary is July 10.

Over the past few years, the state has changed the law to allow voters to permanently vote by absentee ballot and to allow online voter registration by the 2016 elections.

This year state lawmakers approved a bill, which is awaiting Gov. Neil Abercrombie's review, that would allow voter registration at absentee polling places during the 2016 elections and voter registration on Election Day at precincts in the 2018 elections.

"We have the lowest turnout in the nation, and we don't have to," said Rep. Kani­ela Ing (D, South Maui), the bill's sponsor. "I think a lot of the focus in the past has been on getting more people to register to vote, but if they don't come out and actually vote, that actually worsens our turnout percentages.

"This bill combines those two steps, so you just register and vote at the same time. It makes sense for new voters."

House Bill 2590 passed 24-1 in the state Senate, with only Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai) voting "no." But 10 senators voted "yes" with reservations. In the House the vote was 40-10, and 15 lawmakers voted "yes" with reservations.

Ing said he believes lawmakers do not like changes that could alter the voter composition of their districts. "It isn't easy for legislators to agree on altering their voting populations and jeopardizing their job security," he said. "So I'm proud of my colleagues for doing so in the name of a stronger democracy."

But several lawmakers cited a late revision to the bill in conference committee, which deleted a requirement that registration clerks demand proof of residency from people who want to register late. People who register to vote now take an oath stating that their name, Social Security number, date of birth, citizenship status and residency are accurate, but do not have to show proof of residency.

Clerks, however, have the discretion -- and would under the bill -- to demand that people furnish substantiating evidence about residency.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have authorized same-day voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and proof of residency is usually a key requirement.

Rep. Beth Fukumoto (R, Mili­lani-Mili­lani Mauka-Wai­pio Acres), who had been a co-sponsor of Ing's bill, voted "no" because of the revision. She believes same-day voter registration can be viable, but not without stronger proof of residency. She pointed to the mishaps that occurred during the 2012 elections, when pre­cincts opened late in Hawaii County in the primary, which led Abercrombie to extend voting hours, and precincts on Oahu ran out ballots during the general election, which caused a delay in reporting election results.

"On the day of the election, so much can go wrong -- and so much is already going wrong -- that I felt like the last thing we needed was another Election Day debacle," Fuku­moto said. "Because that's going to really make people not want to vote anymore."

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