‘The State that Doesn’t Vote’ … so said the headline in a 2012 article on CNN … Of the 50-States and the District of Columbia, Hawai‘i ranks 51 (last) in voter turn-out rate.
“(F)ewer than half of eligible Hawai‘i residents voted. Compare that with the No. 1 civic-minded state, Minnesota, where 78% cast ballots.” (CNN)
A cynic might say, “Well, it’s better than it was over 150-years ago. Back then, nobody voted.” (But, back then, citizens weren’t allowed to vote.)
Let’s look back …
“(I)n the earliest times all the people were ali‘i … it was only after the lapse of several generations that a division was made into commoners and chiefs.” (Malo) In early Hawaiʻi “The parents were masters over their own family group … No man was made chief over another.” (Kamakau) Essentially, the extended family was the socio, biological, economic and political unit.
As the population increased and needs and wants increased in variety and complexity (and it became too difficult to satisfy them with finite resources,) the need for chiefly rule became apparent. As chiefdoms developed, the simple pecking order of titles and status likely evolved into a more complex and stratified structure.
The kapu system was the common structure, the rule of order, and religious and political code. This social and political structure gave leaders absolute rule and authority. Island rulers, Aliʻi or Mōʻī, typically ascended to power through warfare and familial succession.
When Kamehameha died on May 8, 1819, the crown was passed to his son, Liholiho, who would rule as Kamehameha II. Kaʻahumanu recruited Liholiho’s mother, Keōpūolani, to join her in convincing Liholiho to break the kapu system which had been the rigid code of Hawaiians for centuries.
This changed the course of the civilization and ended the kapu system, effectively weakened belief in the power of the gods and the inevitability of divine punishment for those who opposed them. In addition to the abolition of the old ways, Kaʻahumanu created the office of Kuhina Nui (similar to premier, prime minister or regent) and would rule as an equal with Liholiho – this started the shift from absolute rule to shared rule.
While Liholiho’s brother Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) ruled as monarch (with shared authority with the Kuhina Nui,) he, too, took bold steps in changing the structure of governance. Kamehameha III initiated and implemented Hawaiʻi’s first constitution (1840) (one of five constitutions governing the Islands – and then, later, governance as part of the US.)
Of his own free will he granted the Constitution of 1840, as a boon to his country and people, establishing his Government upon a declared plan. (Rex v. Booth – Hanifin)
That constitution introduced the innovation of representatives chosen by the people (rather than as previously solely selected by the Aliʻi.) This gave the common people a share in the government’s actual political power for the first time.
One important aspect of this constitution was the establishment of the House of Representatives as part of the legislative body, allowing the people a voice in government.
A subsequent law (1842) detailed the election process, “In accordance with the requirements of the constitution, certain persons will be chosen to sit in council with the Nobles. … Whosoever pleases … may write to His Majesty mentioning the names of the two persons of wisdom whom he chooses to sit in council with the Nobles.”
“In these ballot letters there may be a great number of signatures to the same letter. The names of all who vote will be counted, and the persons having a majority will be the ones who are chosen.” However, more than ten years passed before a formal election was held.
On July 30, 1850, a new election law provided for annual elections; under this act, a voter had to be a male subject (either native or naturalized) or resident, at least 20-years of age, who had lived at least one year in Hawai‘i, and was not insane or an unpardoned felon.
When Hawai‘i held its first modern election, on January 6, 1851, approximately 13.9% of the population of Honolulu went to the polls. The 1862 election was a high-water mark, with a turnout of 20.9%. Four years later only 1.6% cast ballots.
Another peak was reached in 1887, with 16.7%. Participation rates dropped precipitously during the following decade, and by 1897 less than one percent of the population was voting. The 1862 level was not reached again until after World War II. (Schmitt)
In 1959, when Hawai‘i first became a state, Islands voters were at the top of the nation with 84% for Primary Elections and 93% for the General.
However in looking at the trends, voter participation rates haven’t really improved over the century and a half from Hawai‘i’s first election; Hawai‘i has the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation. (CNN)
To put this into perspective, the best state had well over 75%, while the nation’s average was just 61%. This has been a recurring problem as every year the percentage of voters who participate in elections drops. Hawai‘i has dropped to half of its 1959 participation rate (41.5% in Primary and 52.3% in General in 2014.) (Nishida)
A graphic representation of DBEDT’s data, shows that even with a growing number of eligible voters (861,000 to 1,111,000) and growing registered voter numbers (464,000 to 707,000,) over the past 20+ years, typically only about 400,000 people in Hawai‘i vote.
For two centuries, the trend in Hawaiʻi has been toward expanding the numbers of people who have a say in all parts of their government: from Kamehameha I’s near-absolute monarchy to a hereditary oligarchy, to an oligarchy open to men with money, to American republic. (Hanifin)
Today’s eligibility and registration process is pretty simple, and many can and should vote. However, as noted by CNN, Hawai‘i is the state that doesn’t vote.