Hawaii’s over-50 voters expected to come out big again in the fall elections

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Sometimes age and wisdom do cohabitate. According to an AARP Hawaii survey, 98 percent of their 150,000 members ages 50-plus say they will vote in the upcoming election. Considering that 41 percent of Hawaii’s over-50 population are AARP members—and that 20 percent of all Hawaii voters are in this older demographic—age may be the magic that gets voters to the polls. 

University of Hawaii at Manoa professor and political analyst Neal Milner finds nothing strange in older voters having the urge to consistently vote and agrees there’s not a voting gene that gets turned on as adults reach middle age.

“Voting is a habit that has to be cultivated and it takes a while to start,” Milner says. “Younger voters don’t vote for the same reason older voters don’t listen to hip-hop: It’s not part of their frame of reference.”

In AARP’s recently released report on the demographics and concerns of its membership, “56 percent of votes in Hawaii elections are expected to come from someone age 50 or older, roughly one third of all votes cast will likely come from an AARP member.”

Given historical winning margins of perhaps a few hundred votes, the over-50 voter is a formidable force.

“With our state’s low voter turnout, the high number of 50-plus voters who do hit the polls carries even more weight for local, State, and federal elections,” says AARP Hawaii Executive Director, Barbara Kim Stanton.

Hawaii voter turnout is far from stellar as most of us unfortunately repeat to each other. An enduring “go figure” is why in the last election featuring a presidential candidate whose youth was spent in Hawaii, why with a Barry tale on many a lip, Hawaii ranked dead last at 50.8 percent in State voter turnout even though more registered voters actually voted according to the U.S. Census report, Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008. (If you’re into voter turnout envy, Minnesota was first with 75 percent.)

And while nationally, younger voters helped carry the Obama campaign to victory, Hawaii’s younger voters 18-24 did not keep pace with their national counterparts.

In the U.S. Census report for 2006, our last midterm election, a 42 percent voter turnout rate placed Hawaii tenth in the bottom ten states ranked for voter turnout. In that report, age is considered a factor in predicting who will vote:

“The odds ratio for 25- to 44-year-old citizens is 1.4, indicating that people in the older group had about 40 percent greater odds of voting than younger people. Meanwhile, 45- to 64-year-old citizens had more than twice the odds of voting as young people (2.1:1), while the odds of voting for citizens 65-and-older were about 3 times as high (3.3:1).”

So now, facing another midterm election in November, one with polling place challenges that may have some older—and younger—voters learning a new location to cast their vote, bets are still that the older the voter, the more effort she will make to get to her polling place and learn about the issues even before the trip to the booth.

“People who are conscientious will find the polls,” says Scott Foster, the volunteer communications consultant to the League of Women Voters. He also says voter volume isn’t enough. “I’d like to see educated voters voting.” 

The League is offering space on its website for candidates to upload answers to issues of all kinds so long as the answer can be fit into 250 words. Voters can access the candidate information by clicking on the “Election 2010—Candidates” link on the League’s home page

Based on questions from its membership, AARP created a voter guide with top issues resulting from its survey for each election race. All candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and State Legislative races were invited to answer and the on-line guide will be available to the public in early September at www.aarp.org/hi. For the Congressional race, candidates will be queried following the primary.

While the key State issues the 50-plus voter wants to hear from candidates now are very similar to what many younger voters find important—the state budget, the economy and jobs, the shortage of medical professionals—the interests diverge at the Congressional level.

For the Congressional race, over-50 voters are eyeing Social Security’s future, Medicare fraud, and economic security for older workers.

Regardless of the commonality of issues between the over and under-50s, Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director, Nikki Love, a self-identified “younger voter” says she admits to feeling frustrated in trying to get her peer group to vote. She also sees the registration process as part of the problem in activating younger voters used to a more immediate decision and action pattern.

“The mechanism we have for voting is so archaic,” Love said. “For example, having to register to vote 30 days in advance is a real hindrance. A lot of young people don’t get motivated to vote until much closer to the election.”

Maybe the same could be said of those in their 30s and 40s, beleaguered by trying to keep their families afloat. Love hopes AARP, the League of Women Voters, and other groups would help to make it a little easier for people to register to vote. Same day registration would be her preference. For right now, voters have until October 4 to register for the general election.

With the confluence of serious issues that may be the defining line between having a sustainable life or falling out of the system, older voters will likely continue to register. Perhaps what we really need is a nonpartisan civics mentoring project between older and younger voters.

Stanton and Foster agree those who count themselves as independents are growing. In the current AARP survey, 16 percent profess to be independent, 33 percent identify themselves as Republican, and 37 percent say they are Democrats. When asked how they lean, 33 percent label themselves conservative, 32 percent think they are moderate, and 21 percent count themselves as liberal.

While any of us can debate the wisdom of how individuals in the 50-plus group vote, the fact that this group as a whole does turn out to vote is testament to civic commitment and values. It’s values in action and flies in the face of low voter turnout ennui. In an age where everyone wants to talk values, here’s one worth celebrating, especially in Hawaii. 

The full interview with Barbara Kim Stanton and Scott Foster is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.