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Hawaii doesn't have to finish last in voting

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 5:58 PM EDT, Fri November 2, 2012
  • Based on 2008 numbers, Hawaii needs 11,466 new voters to jump out of last place
  • The state had the lowest voter turnout in 2008, making it the subject of a CNN series
  • CNN's Change the List hopes to try to increase voter turnout in the islands
  • John Sutter: New get-out-the-vote efforts could lead to increased participation

(CNN) -- 11,466. That's Hawaii's magic number on Election Day.

If voter turnout stayed exactly as it did in 2008 (impossible, I know, but hear me out) then 11,000-some new voters would push the Aloha State out of last place for voter participation. Watch out West Virginia, Hawaii is coming for you. If 11,466 more people voted in the presidential election in Hawaii, then the state's turnout rate would hit 50% of the eligible population, based on numbers compiled by George Mason University's Michael McDonald on a site called the United States Election Project. That would push Hawaii past West Virginia, which had a 49.9% turnout.

That's a lot of numbers, I know. And there are plenty of caveats, since turnout obviously won't be the same as it was, thanks to Superstorm Sandy and a host of other factors. But my takeaway is this: Hawaii is really close. That's an attainable goal.

For the past few weeks, I've been working on a new CNN project called Change the List that's focused, at the moment, on boosting Hawaii's lowest-of-the-low voter turnout rate. It's not that I don't love West Virginia and the other 49 states, too, but I'm also a sucker for an underdog story. When it comes to voting, Hawaii's story is just that. Shortly after statehood in 1959, more than 90% of the state's eligible voters cast ballots. In 2008, with Hawaii's own Barack Obama on the ticket, fewer than half of eligible people voted.

When I traveled to the Aloha State to talk to nonvoters, I met people who didn't know the election was coming up in November, those who feel like their votes don't matter because they're so far (in distance and psychology) from "the mainland," and those who don't want to participate in a political system that values conflict over compromise. I can't help but think that our national politics -- bogged down in money and aggression -- could use a healthy dose of the Aloha Vote. Hawaii's voice should finally be heard.

Here are a few reasons for optimism on this front:

1. Kanu Hawaii: This volunteer group, whose name means "to plant" in Hawaiian, has been working this year to register new voters and engage communities that typically have been left out of the political conversation. As of last month, the group had registered 2,397 new voters and knocked on 789 doors asking people to vote. If all of those new registered voters actually go to the polls (if that's you, do it!) then the contest is already 20% taken care of, thanks to the work of 40 Kanu volunteers.

2. Close races and big issues: It's a generally held belief in the world of voter-turnout-ology that competitive elections tend to drive up turnout. Nationally, the presidential election could hardly be closer -- and the candidates are as different as Gaga and Taylor. But it's the local and state races that will really push people to the polls in Hawaii. Ask just about anyone on Oahu what his or her top political issue is and they'll likely say one word: "rail." A commuter-rail project has become the divisive topic of the Honolulu mayor's race, and both sides are quite polarized. A Civil Beat poll shows the race is very much up for grabs, with Ben Cayetano, the anti-rail candidate, leading Kirk Caldwell 50% to 45%. "A lot of it is going to come down to turnout," a pollster told the news site.

3. The surf: Before I left for Hawaii, a state representative, Angus McKelvey, gave one very Hawaii-specific reason for the state's low turnout: surf. When the surf's up, he said, people won't go to the polls. The theory is a little wacky, of course, but even if it's true, there will be better surf in Hawaii on Monday than Tuesday, Election Day, said Gary Kewley, "chief surfing officer" of the Surf News Network. "Most people only surf on average for an hour and a half to 2 1/2 hours," he told me by phone. "That leaves plenty of time to go to the voting booth." Waves on Monday are expected to crest at 15 feet. Tuesday, they'll still be big, but more in the 8-foot range. By the way, Kewley votes.

4. The conversation: Take this with a grain of salt, but it seems from where I'm sitting (far-far away, in Atlanta) that lots of people in Hawaii are talking about voting this year. Maybe it's the people I chat with, like Nani Teruya, in Maui, who told me that her phone has been ringing off the hook (she described this phenomenon as the phone having "diarrhea") since she was featured on as one of six nonvoters in Hawaii. And then there's the news coverage. TV stations and newspapers in Hawaii have been talking about Hawaii's low level of voter participation in recent weeks. All of this chatter has to help raise awareness about an important election. On my trip, I learned that one reason people don't vote is that they've never been asked to participate. I hope the state of Hawaii feels a collective plea from those of us on the mainland to vote this year.

Of course, none of this is up to me. It's up to people in Hawaii to go to the polls -- even if they never have before. If everyone in the state encouraged a few of their friends to vote, the list certainly would be changed. Just look at what Kanu has done with only 40 volunteers. If you want to help keep the conversation going, here are two small things you can do: Share this "Mahalo for Voting" image on Facebook or Tumblr and do the same with this "11,466" image. It's a small thing, sure, but a reminder that this goal is in reach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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