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Hawaii Series is Excellent Primer on Voter Turnout

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[Image courtesy of civilbeat]

Back in January, I blogged about the issues involved with calculating turnout. This week, veteran political reporter and blogger Ian Lind is writing in Honolulu Civil Beat about the same issues but focusing specifically on Hawaii, which typically ranks at or near the bottom nationally on most measures of turnout.

There's not a lot new there for those of us who study elections, but Lind's writing is still valuable because its text and accompanying graphics are some of the best I've seen for explaining the issue of turnout to the lay reader. In his piece, he covers the difference between presidential and non-presidential elections, the various sources for turnout data, and even addresses the impact of federal laws like "motor voter" on the rolls - and thus also on turnout:

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, stopped state and local governments from dropping registered voters from the rolls just because they don't vote.

Previously, Hawaii residents were automatically deleted from voter lists if they failed to show up during two consecutive election cycles.

"At that time, we were very strict," said Honolulu election administrator Glen Takahashi. "If you missed two elections, you were kicked off."

For example, if a registered voter failed to vote in either the primary or general election over successive two-year election cycles, under the old procedures they would have been "scrubbed" from the list of registered voters. In order to vote in any future election, they would have had to re-register.

"Now it's harder for the clerks to remove anyone from the voter rolls," Nago said. "It's a much longer process."

Hawaii election statistics seem to support the notion of a direct link between the change in the law and lower official voter turnout numbers.

Between passage of the federal law in 1993, and the 2010 election, the number of registered voters in Hawaii jumped much faster than the number of votes cast.

The number of registered voters in the state climbed nearly 49 percent between 1992, just before passage of Motor Voter, and 2010, while the number of votes cast rose less than 1 percent. Voter turnout dropped from 82.4 percent to 55.8 percent during the period, according to the Office of Elections.

At the conclusion of his initial piece, Lind makes the following observation:

The bottom line? Differing measures and assumptions lead to sometimes conflicting assessments of just how well, or poorly, Hawaii is doing in encouraging active voter participation in elections. Compared to our own historical performance, we perhaps aren't doing too badly, but compared to other parts of the U.S., we rank very low.

In the end, Hawaii's record is just fair, at best, and embarrassingly bad, at worst.

It will be interesting to see if the series will address the use of turnout as a performance indicator, about which I have already expressed considerable skepticism. Still, regardless of your level of understanding of turnout and other election statistics, it is well worth your time to follow Lind's series this week as a refresher on how turnout is at least part of the election administration conversation.

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