Commentary–The Election: The Numbers Behind the Numbers

by Alan McNarie

Okay, the election is over.  The 11:30 printout is here, and at least as far as the Big Island is concerned, the results from 10 p.m. stand. And where Hawaii is concerned, this may have been the least dramatic election in history. All the people who were expected to win, won.  There was maybe some doubt, at least in major newspapers’ minds, about the governor’s race, but that was quickly resolved: David Ige took a commanding lead early and never let go of it.  All Mufi Hanneman’s 3rd-party run did was deprive Ige of a full majority; he’ll have to rule with a 49 percent mandate instead of 51 percent or more, which he would almost certainly have gotten  if Mufi hadn’t tapped the same overwhelmingly Democratic pool of voters.

Or maybe a lot less than 49 percent.  There actually is some drama in those election numbers if you look at them. This election does raise some questions and suggest some uncomfortable implications for the state of the State of Hawaii, and of  democracy therein. Among them:

The majority that elects people isn’t a majority of the people. No sooner had the 11:30 printout come out, then the Star Advertiser posted a story that this election had marked a new “record low” turnout of voters–at “52 percent.” But I suspect that percentage is based on the number of registered voters compared to people who voted. The reality may be even grimmer. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2013, Hawaii had a population of  1,404, 054 people (That’s a pretty fine-toothed estimate. If I was doing it, I’d have rounded off to the nearest 100, at least).  Out of those, the Census’s  Quick Facts Page says that 21.9 percent of Hawaii’s population was under the age of 18. That means 78.1 percent of the population is of voting age. 78.1 percent of 1,404,054 people is 1,096,566.174, if this English major’s calculator is correct. Round that down to a whole person: 1,096,566. Again, if I’ve calculated correctly, 325, 560 voted for a gubernatorial candidate in the 2014 General election.  That means that, assuming our population has grown since 2013, less than 30 percent of persons of voting age in Hawaii actually voted in this year’s most important, controversial race.  Of those, only 180, 790 voted for Ige. So Ige was actually elected by a little under 16 percent of people of voting age in Hawaii.  Is this really democracy?

In some races, there was no vote at all.  Dennis “Fresh” Onishi is going back to the Hawaii County Council, despite a horrendous absentee rate and a habit, even when he makes the roll call,  of being out of the room when people are testifying. He’ll be there because nobody ran against him.  Dru Kanuha has never actually been voted on.  He “ran” for a council seat that he helped create as a member of the rezoning committee, and nobody opposed him then, and nobody opposed him for a second term either.  He’s  a councilmember by default.

So why don’t people vote? Why don’t they run?

I don’t have any solid numbers about that.  But I’ve heard a lot of  personal testimony. A  lot of people in the social media are  maintaining that they aren’t really being offered a choice at the ballot booth–that Big Money has rigged the ballot, and no matter which candidate they choose, they basically end up with the same uncaring  government.  As one reader put it in a comment on this site on election day:

Why vote? Good question, it is a futile act of craziness. Anyone who thinks their vote is counted or even is significant is wrong! MONSANTO votes regularly, it’s [sic]vote counts. If you are an average person with average income your vote is negated by MONSANTO and the rest of the 1%.

There’s some truth in this.  I should know.  I’ve been writing about campaign finance and money in politics for twenty years. It’s a big, big problem. But I also know that….

Big Money doesn’t always win.  In fact, time after time, I’ve seen big money backfire–especially if its presence is pointed out. Case in point: Margaret Wille. The author of the county’s law limiting genetically modified crops, who’s known for her pro-environmental leanings,  was targeted with an enormous $100,000 media blitz by a Carpenter’s Union PAC called Forward Progress–all of which was documented and brought to the public’s attention by Nancy Cook Lauer in an excellent article in West Hawaii Today. That $100,000 was in addition to the $34,00o raised by Gonzales from other sources.    Wille  was outspent by a margin of over three to one.   For  that 134,000 dollars or so, Gonzales got 2,149 votes. Wille got 3, 154.

And then, of course, there’s Maui, where the full economic might of Monsanto and the whole agribusiness establishment couldn’t stop an anti-GMO charter amendment.

There are reasons that Big Money doesn’t always win, and one of the big reasons is the Internet. Big Money doesn’t really understand the Internet as well as activists do, at least at this point in time.  Big business is still making big media buys on TV and radio, while activists can spread ideas and knowledge like wildfire for free. I first read Lauer’s article, for instance,  not in West Hawaii Today, but in an e-mail. That Internet edge  may change soon. But right now, there’s a window of opportunity for real change.

All politicians are definitely not the same.  I’ve known some real stinkers, but I’ve also met a number of good ones, who put the people and the land and the ocean and the air ahead of dollars. The problem is getting more good ones on the ballot. Which leads to the next point:

We need better candidates.Take a good  look at tonight’s results: Many of those people  were elected with margins of 70 percent or more.  Some of them are good public servants who’ve earned people’s support. Others have mediocre legislative  records, at best.  But they have name recognition and they have money,  so people don’t even challenge them.  Or their challengers are ideologues, less concerned about winning than about preaching.  If you look at the ballots tonight, at first glance, it might appear the main opposition to the Democrats, especially on this island, are the Libertarians.  There are more Libertarians in general election races in Hawaii County  than there were Republicans this year. But that ubiquitousness doesn’t mean that they were strong opposition; their percentage of the vote was generally in the teens or  lower, and it generally shrank to single digits if  a Republican was in the same race.  And remember, even a 15 percent showing  is only 15 percent or so of the 30 percent or less–perhaps significantly less, in less publicized races–who bothered to vote, which suggests that these candidates’ actual appeal is–well, incredibly miniscule. Which brings up the next point:

Primaries are important, dammit. Many local politicians were elected before tonight even happened. Their real opposition, in this Democrat-dominated state, was other Democrats. Certainly, if you want choice aside from the far right, that choice is going to appear in the primaries. That’s become even more true since the advent of the non-partisan council election, where any candidate who pulls more than 50 percent of the votes of the people who bothered to vote in the primary doesn’t even have to face a Libertarian in the general; he or she is home free.

So you want change?  You can have change, if you don’t just assume you can’t. It’s really simple: you register to vote, you pick good people to run, and then you vote for them in the primaries and vote for them in general elections.  It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. But if you don’t, then I guarantee: if the one percent don’t run your government, the 30 percent will.




11 replies
  1. Administrator
    Administrator says:

    It is important to note that the Carpenters UNION does not fund Forward Progress. The Union has made a deal with the devil and maintains a developer/construction corporation slush fund for them. Union members do not contribute and have only 50% control of the estimated $10,000,000 left in the fund. The fund is 50% controlled by the developers/corporations.

    Additionally the Fund behind Forward Progress has promulgated some twisted logic to exempt itself from listing its donors. Write the Campaign Spending Commission at
    235 S. Beretania Street, Room 300
    Honolulu, HI 96813

    And ask them to repeal rule 06-01 which allows the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Fund to get away with hiding its donors.

  2. Dave Smith
    Dave Smith says:

    “Drew” Kanuha did all that the system required. Do you think it’s fair to say he’s “never actually been elected”? I suppose one could say that he was elected by default, but it’s not his fault nobody chose to oppose him. He certainly was elected legitimately.

    And an author who makes such a grandiose claim about his own repporting experience (which is not true, btw) should at.least follow the first rule of journalism, which is spell the subject’s name correctly. It’s Dru.

  3. Dave Smith
    Dave Smith says:

    Thanks for correcting the misspelling and your claim that you have been reporting on election campaigns “longer than anyone in the state.”

  4. Alan McNarie
    Alan McNarie says:

    But I didn’t say I’d been reporting on “election campaigns.” I said I’d been reporting on campaign finance and money in politics. I don’t recall you guys then at the Tribune-Herald or West Hawaii Today ever looking hard at all that off-island money flowing into Big Island candidates’ coffers before I started doing it at Ka`u Landing and the Hawaii Island Journal. ‘Cant vouch for some of the O`ahu papers, though, so I took that claim out.

  5. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    Great commentary Alan!

    I’m not sure what these digs are about quality journalism, I prefer to hear your solid commentary on the election about money, turnout & strong opinions based on realistic elements of our county council member’s history & arrival in office.

    This kind of smart discourse is mostly lacking at Stephen’s media barring the constant wing-nut letters to editor and some occasional good articles which push beyond event reporting to issue analysis. (Like Nancy Cook-Lauer’s recent article

    Over at, a typical 99% press release on-line news conglomeration (which someday soon an AI enhanced computer will do), the ‘Volcano Watch’, science essays are under the ‘Discussion’ section, a bit odd to place with letters & opinion. Not much real discussion here, I did find a few interesting but brief Hunter Bishop pieces on waste disposal after some searching.

    I know journalism is shrinking and the money pot small, so thanks for your efforts Alan! I hope someday, deep pockets tap you and some other great Big Island writers to help start a ‘Civil Beat’ Hawaii County or Outer Island version.

  6. The Casual Observer
    The Casual Observer says:

    The election paradigm in Hawaii is irretrievably broken. Barring a total revolution, there is no relief on the horizon either. Shipping companies like Matson and Young brothers, HEI, Construction, and Tourism are the rulers of Hawaii. It doesn’t matter who we elect. Same ol Same ol. I believe they call it status quo. And now with Ige as gov….same ol, same ol. AJA’s are very conservative in many regards. Same ol same ol. Kow tow to the aforementioned industries and the wheels on Hawaii’s political bus goes round and round.

  7. Alan McNarie
    Alan McNarie says:

    I think whether you want either a revolution or an election that really works, you’re going to have mobilize that silent 70 percent that didn’t vote.

  8. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Australia has mandatory voting, and a “non of the above” choice for each position.
    Ranked choice voting would save tons of money, and open the field so the two-party system has less of a choke-hold.
    Elections would certainly be more meaningful.
    What do you think?

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