Sunday, October 05, 2014


Who will be next to complain about low voter turnout?

by Larry Geller

There are many things one can count on in Hawaii. Coco Puffs from Liliha Bakery. Low voter turnout. Warm ocean water even in winter. The best papayas in the world. Low voter turnout.

I can’t wait for the next newspaper article or the next advocacy campaign to either lament how few of us vote or proposing to change the dismal numbers. These campaigns don’t work. Why don’t we step back a second before either complaining or doing something ineffective, and examine the situation?

Look, there are some things we can influence, if we got together (which I’ll get back to in a moment). We could cut our cost of electricity that’s a drain on everyone’s pocketbook. We could enforce traffic laws and reduce the human sacrifice among elderly pedestrians. We could create an amazing amount of affordable rental housing.

Any of those things may be easier, and much more important to do, than to obsess about the low voter turnout.

Although there is a widespread belief that uneven voter turnout leads to biased outcomes in American democracy, existing empirical tests have found few effects.

[, America's Uneven Democracy: Race, Turnout, and Representation in City Politics, 2009]

More from the book (citation omitted):

What do we know about voter turnout and its implications for American democracy? Despite an almost universal belief among political actors that turnout matters, analysis of existing empirical research provides little evidence to indicate that turnout is a critical factor in the American political arena. In fact, a rather extensive empirical literature strongly suggests that raising or lowering turnout would do little to change the face of American democracy. Higher or more even turnout would not produce new winners. With lower turnout, there are no big losers. As one scholar of American elections put it, “most electoral outcomes are not determined in any meaningful sense by turnout and are not likely to change through even highly implausible levels of voter mobilization. It appears that nonvoting does not as a rule make much of a difference to election outcomes”

The takeaway here is that, in the absence of empirical tests done here in Hawaii, we just don’t know what a low voter turnout means. Until we learn otherwise, I for one can accept the thesis that it doesn’t matter at all, at least with regard to election outcomes.

Unlike most urban centers on the Continent, low voter turnout may not have the effect of disenfranchising a minority. Honolulu is very different from, for example, Chicago. But again, that’s only speculation on my part.

At the risk of throwing out yet another unsupported theory, I suggest that “low participation” should be of more concern. It’s not just participation in the vote—it’s low participation in most any civic activity. It may be all one fabric.

Perhaps someone at UH will venture outside the ivory tower to do a proper study one day, either on voter turnout alone, or on civic participation in general. Yes, we also have an issue with academic participation in our community. Where are these studies when we need them?

Money doesn’t always buy votes here or elsewhere, though it certainly helps. The most recent example is the stunning defeat of our well-financed incumbent governor Neil Abercrombie. Despite our usual low election participation rate, the people spoke.

Voting is a kind of poll, after all

Call it a poll or sample rather than an election, if you like. The people were polled, Abercrombie lost. Democracy worked.

As long as the poll generally represents the thinking of the larger population, who cares? A higher participation rate may not have changed the outcome. Or it may have, but not likely. If the poll is conducted properly, it’s assumed to be valid.

Low participation is often frustrating and needs to be examined. Each election, many politicians run unopposed. How come?

It’s hard to motivate competent individuals to participate on boards or commissions. We can be grateful for those who do choose to participate, but why are they so few?

Where are Native Hawaiians at almost any meeting on any subject in Honolulu? C’mon, think about that one. Why is it ok that it is ok with us if they are absent?

[Example: I attended a meeting in a room at the State Capitol several years ago. The subject was microfinance, and how a particular flavor of it could benefit marginalized communities in Hawaii. The focus was on Native Hawaiians and how microfinance might improve their lot. I looked around. There were legislators, community leaders, and miscellaneous others in the room besides the outside visitor-presenters. But at least not apparently any Native Hawaiians. I asked, and there were none. I asked why the meeting was being held at the Capitol instead of out in the community that could benefit from hearing the presentation. Silence. I was suddenly very unpopular. But this suggested to me that what can be described as “lack of participation” may be an even larger issue of an endemic culture of mutual exclusion.] [(sigh) why are things so complicated? Where are the “easy answers?” we’d prefer to have?]

What I think we lack is a picture of ourselves—a selfie—that we could study, admire and criticize.

I take that back, though. We’ll only see what we want to see. It’s time to visit a shrink. This is not a do-it-yourself project. We could use an analysis by trained political scientists or sociologists that would give us guidance to improve. I submit that low voter turnout is only a symptom of something else that we could learn more about.

But besides Coco Puffs, another thing we can count on is the lack of participation of UH academics in our civic life. There are answers, but to find them, someone with the ability to come up with them has to ask the questions, do the study, and emerge from Manoa long enough to explain to us their findings.


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