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Why doesn’t Hawaii vote?

Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout rate of any U.S. state.

This was true even in 2008, when Obama — Hawaii’s native son — was on the presidential ticket. Less than half of Hawaii’s population voted in that election.

So what’s up?

I’m going to travel to the state soon to find out. (Rough life, right?) And in preparation, I’ve talked with several academics and voting rights advocates about some of the reasons people in Hawaii tend to vote at a lower rate than the rest of us. 

Here are some of the theories people have floated. These are the hypotheses I’ll test out on the ground. Take a look and let me know what seems most plausible:

  • Hawaiians have better things to do — mostly surf. This idea strikes me as a bit naive and simplistic. But fun. And I like the idea of needing to talk to surfers.
  • Time zones mess everything up. By the time Hawaiians go to the polls to elect a president, they already know who won. They’re six hours behind the East Coast, and networks sometimes call elections after polls close in the California. They don’t wait for Hawaii. And it’s got to be difficult to drive yourself over to a polling station if the radio is already blabbing about who won the race.
  • The laws are bad (or aren’t good enough). People who are trying to up voter turnout in Hawaii say two legal changes — election-day voter registration and greater use of mail-in ballots — would increase voter turnout by several percentage points. Others say the polls should be open later. Hawaii’s polls close at 6 p.m., compared to at least 7 in most states.
  • It’s a single-party state. Democrats dominate politics in Hawaii. Many races are uncontested. In others, Republicans don’t stand a chance. Close elections tend to draw more voters than those that almost seem to be pre-determined.
  • People are fed up with politics. They’re apathetic, these experts told me. Hawaiian culture traditionally values consensus and agreement. It’s not the kind of place that’s going to love a fierce political attack ad. Maybe that’s true more in Hawaii than elsewhere, but I don’t think this factor is unique to the state.
  • Hawaii is the other. It’s thousands of miles from the coast of California to the Hawaiian islands. Some people in the state likely don’t feel like they’re part of the national political scene — like they matter. Further complicating things, some native Hawaiians say the U.S. is illegally occupying the state. Why would you vote in a U.S. election if you believed it to be illegal?

We will see which of these theories — if any — holds the most weight.