Nonprofits Work to Get Hawaii's Youth to the Polls

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Four years ago, less than a third of young people in Hawaii between ages 18 and 29 voted, the lowest youth turnout in the nation. But grassroots organizations in Hawaii want 2012 to be different.

“What it’s going to take to get the money out is to get people back in,” said James Koshiba, founder of the nonprofit Kanu Hawaii, last week to a room of about two dozen volunteers. Koshiba was referring to the millions of dollars spent on influencing elections and politics every year. He said, “It’s the only antidote to politics that feels like it’s out of our hands."

“Amen!” responded 24-year-old Aislinn Coleman, prompting a chorus of laughter. Coleman is one of about 40 volunteers whom Koshiba has enlisted to canvass houses, speak in classrooms, and reach out over social media in a nonpartisan effort to increase voter registration and turnout.

Coleman has never been involved in politics before, but then again, neither has Kanu Hawaii. The mission of the organization is to make Hawaii more compassionate, sustainable and self-reliant. Civic engagement is a new initiative specific to 2012, and so far they've registered more than 1,200 people to vote.

“Even if the effect I have now is small, even just being a part of a seedling group that could grow into something that has a huge impact inspires me,” Coleman told Civil Beat.

Koshiba says that’s the point.

“It starts with people getting involved and inspired to participate and ends with policy change,” Koshiba said.

Changing the Status Quo

Kanu Hawaii is one of several organizations working this year to change Hawaii’s abysmal voter turnout rate.

They've partnered with other groups like Common Cause and No Vote No Grumble as they work toward the same goal: get more people registered and voting in this year's election. The state Office of Elections doesn't consider increasing voter turnout to be part of its job, so these groups are picking up the slack.

Just 31 percent of youth voters in Hawaii went to the polls last presidential election, far below the national average of 51 percent.

It’s ironic given that President Barack Obama, who was born and raised in Hawaii, inspired young people across the nation to vote.

“[One reason might be] a general perception that federal elections have little to do with Hawaii,” said Collin Moore, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii who specializes in elections and voter turnout. “I think maybe because they don’t feel inspired by the federal election they just don’t turn out to vote.”

The absence of active political groups on the university campus is also a strong indicator of political apathy, Moore said.

Koshiba said the barriers to youth voting that he hears about most frequently are lack of accessibility, lack of information, and disillusionment with the political process.

He said he thinks these can be overcome, and he's not the only one.

Christopher Stump, a junior at the University of Hawaii, is heading a new initiative to get students registered to vote through the university's undergraduate and graduate student governments. After getting 60 students registered in the first couple of days, Stump said he's hopeful that the project will take off and become an annual affair.

Karim Troost, another junior at the university, co-founded the Politically Active Student Alliance this fall to increase student awareness about how to vote and why it matters. The group is planning forums to foster dialogue about the voting process and key political issues.

According to several University of Hawaii professors, they haven't seen anything on the scale of Kanu Hawaii's project.

"Kanu Hawaii’s is definitely the most extensive outreach to increase youth voter turnout that I’ve ever seen," said Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, an assistant professor in the university's political science department.

In May, the organization registered about 350 students over the course 10 days at University of Hawaii and Winward Community College, and canvassed in Kaneohe.

This fall, over 100 professors have requested that the organization come into their classrooms to pass out voter registration forms, and the organization plans to canvass Manoa, Waianae and Waimanalo in partnership with No Vote No Grumble.

In addition to going into classrooms and registering voters door-to-door, the organization is collecting information on what voters want to know about their candidates, sending questionnaires to candidates, and sharing candidates' responses with constituents through mailings and an online game.

It's part of an effort to get information to voters who may feel as though they don't know enough about their candidates to vote or don't get their questions answered.

"There is a lot of distrust [when we knock on doors] because people aren’t used to being listened to without an agenda,” said Aiko Yamashiro, a 26-year-old graduate student at UH who started volunteering with Kanu Hawaii over the summer. “When we got better at communicating [that we're nonpartisan], those moments were very inspiring.”

Have feedback? Suggestions?