Young adults are one of the most chronically underrepresented age groups when it comes to voter participation, and a group of activists planning a voter registration drive at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa take this problem very seriously.
“Because young people are chronically underrepresented, their issues and views are the ones that are marginalized,” said James Koshiba, executive director of Kanu Hawai‘i, a local nonprofit aimed at building island-style grassroots social activism.
Kanu Hawai‘i is partnering with The Value of Hawai‘i to put on a voter registration drive that will take place April 23 through May 7 on the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus. They are asking for faculty members to allow voter registration teams to come into classrooms to answer questions and give out information about voting before registering students on the spot. They also plan to target student dormitories.
“One of the things we’d like to try to demonstrate is that actually registering young people, and especially at UH Mānoa where there’s a critical mass of students who live in dorms, can actually have a material impact on the election,” said Koshiba.
According to Koshiba, students who live in the dorms can vote in Hawai‘i state elections for state senators and representatives (although out-of-state students who vote in Hawai‘i elections won’t be able to vote in their home state elections). Since the average voter turnout for a district like Mānoa is only 5,000-7,000 people, UH Mānoa students should constitute a powerful demographic.
“It’s trying to shine a light on and correct a failure of our democratic system right now, which is that it focuses mostly on the interests of people that have the time, resources and energy to vote in what is not always the easiest system to figure out,” said Koshiba.
He pinpointed three factors that keep students from voting: cynicism, not having enough information about candidates, and not having enough information about how to vote in an outdated voting system. For example, you can’t register to vote in Hawai‘i state elections on the Internet.
“It’s not how young people are used to interacting with the world,” said Koshiba.
Other reasons for voter apathy are more abstract. Aiko Yamashiro, project director for The Value of Hawai‘i and a graduate student at UH Mānoa, spoke about feelings of disempowerment. “As a younger person ... I feel like what we say doesn’t necessarily matter as much as older people or ‘adults’ ... and I think that isn’t true, but I think we believe that, and I don’t know why.”
Yamashiro was also concerned about national voting trends, citing recent alleged efforts to stifle student votes because young people are perceived as voting too liberally, or voting based on emotions. “This kind of activating work is really important in the context of (scary) national stories that talk about keeping students from the polls because some politicians don’t want them to participate,” she wrote in an email.
The Value of Hawai‘i and Kanu Hawai‘i have worked together before in 2010 to organize a voter registration drive on campus, but Koshiba said that was more like a practice run. This year’s goal is to register a few hundred new voters. Kanu Hawai‘i will be back in the fall to give out information about the primary and general elections so students have information about candidates for the Manoa district races.
“Registering to vote is kind of this easy thing, but what I think our real goal ... is trying to get students to recognize their power and talk to each other about what they want out of here [and] out of this world and how we don’t have to wait until we’re older to start making changes,” said Yamashiro.
Professors and student groups can request a voter registration visit at http://kanu.me/uhvotes or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Students who want to volunteer to help register others can attend a short training and info session on April 19 at
5:30 p.m., location TBA. Those interested should contact Aiko Yamashiro at email@example.com by Wednesday, April 18.