Hawaii voters went to the polls in large numbers between June 1959 and November 1960, first to determine whether they wanted the islands to become the 50th state, then to elect the entire slate of state officials, including governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature, and finally to participate in the islands’ first presidential election. This flurry of political activity came just five years after the balance of political power tipped in favor of a surging Democratic Party. Public support appeared evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and there were contested races at all levels as the new state took shape. This was heady stuff, and voter turnout was stunningly high. A record 93.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the statehood referendum held in June 1959, and turnout in 1960’s General Election was just a fraction of a percent lower at 93.1 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Hawaii Office of Elections. But times and politics have definitely changed. Across the country, voter turnout has been on the decline since the 1960s, but Hawaii started higher than most and has fallen farther over the years. Simply put, it appears fewer people in Hawaii bother to vote than in almost any other place. The reasons are not at all clear, but the data appears to be.
Hawaii now consistently ranks at or near the bottom in voter turnout when compared with other states. Although there are several ways to measure voter turnout (see Measuring Voter Turnout: An Inconsistent Science), Hawaii ranks at or near the bottom in nearly all of them. The official measure of turnout used by Hawaii’s election officials is the percentage of registered voters who actually cast ballots. Turnout is reported after each election by the Hawaii Office of Elections, along with official election results. The decline isn’t a straight line because voter turnout tends to be higher during presidential election years, then drops a little during the “off” year elections. Historically, the variance has been small, but in the last two election cycles the gap between turnout in presidential and non-presidential elections increased to an average of 12 percent.