By: Avery Dobbs
The Hawaii legislature took an important step towards reducing barriers to voting rights in 2014 by voting to allow same day voter registration at the polls. This is a significant change from the state’s previous rule, which required voters to register at least thirty days before an election to be allowed to vote. The state sought this measure in hopes of addressing its chronically low voter participation rates and to make voting rights more accessible for all Hawaiian citizens. Hawaii’s Chief Elections Officer, Scott Nago, spoke in support of the bill at the time by saying, “any qualified person who wants to vote should be able to register and vote”. The state will soon start to see the benefits of this law as it takes full effect in 2018.
In the 1950s and 60s, when Hawaii was a new state, over 90% of registered voters participated in elections. Hawaiians were eager at that time to participate in the political process and shape the policies of their new state. However, Hawaiian enthusiasm for voting has diminished over the decades and Hawaii now has the lowest voter turnout rate in the country. It is hard to predict how much of an impact same day registration will have on Hawaii’s current trend of low voter turnout, but similar laws in states such as Connecticut and Colorado have caused significant increases in voter participation. Across the U.S., fifteen states plus the District of Columbia currently offer same day voter registration with studies showing that on average voter turnout rates increased by 5% after allowing Election Day registration.
On the other side, critics of same day voter registration argue that its effects on voter participation will be minimal. Sam Slom, the only Republican in the Hawaii Senate from 2010 to 2016, was the only Senator to vote against the same day registration bill. He argued that Hawaii’s low voter turn out rates stem not from the difficulty of registering to vote but from a lack of political choice at the polls. It is true that Democrats dominate Hawaiian politics, with only five Republicans in the state legislature as of 2017 and no Republicans elected to statewide seats. However, voter rates are also low in primary elections where individual voters may be able to assert more influence than in general elections in a decidedly blue state. Further, making registration more accessible may actually lead to greater choice at the polls by opening participation up to a wider population with a wider array of political viewpoints.
Although the plan was signed into law in 2014 it has been slated for an incremental rollout. A partial application was initiated in 2016 for absentee voters only and a full implementation for all voters is set to take effect by the 2018 elections. Once same day registration takes full effect voters will simply need to appear at their polling station the day of the election with proof of identification and proceed to register and vote. Proof of identification can be satisfied either by a government issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, or a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the voter’s name and address. This important change in election process will ensure that more Hawaiians now have access to their voting rights.