Filipino Community Rally to Boost Voter Turnout in First-Ever All-Mail Hawaii Election

By Edwin Quinabo

What’s new? What’s old? What’s buzzworthy? — in the 2020 Hawaii Elections. The new — Hawaii will hold its first-ever all-mail election in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The old – all eyes will be on the Primary where the stiffest competition usually happens in our Democrat-majority state. The buzz – media attention and the talk-of-town are mostly directed at the races for president and Honolulu mayor.

Once again the Filipino community is rallying to spike voter registration and voter turnout. And leaders, as they typically do during this time, are reassessing their community’s place in Hawaii’s political structure. 

If the metric is that Filipino candidates are up and down the ballot box — the Filipino community gets a B to B-minus with ample representation this 2020 voting cycle. But…the big: what’s missing? Hawaii’s Filipinos do not have, say, a Robert “Bobby” Scott, Fil-Am congressman of Virginia (11th term member), nor do they hold any of Hawaii’s other top political offices in the state. And 2020, most likely will not change this based on who’s running.



“Empowerment” for Filipinos in this election will come in less obvious ways – getting behind a candidate who best represents their community’s interests; and even below that radar, selecting candidates who would be supportive of appointing highly qualified Filipinos to top cabinet positions and departments as a matter of fair representation.

Whatever metrics Filipinos choose to measure their political standing, central to all of them is the need to turn out to vote.


Translating numbers to political power
Already in 2010, based off the U.S. Census data 10 years ago, Hawaii’s Filipinos make up a sizeable portion of the state’s overall population. Filipinos and part-Filipinos is the second largest ethnicity in Hawaii making up 25.1 percent or 342,095 in 2010, behind Whites. With Filipinos having the largest immigration to Hawaii, the 2020 Census when completed most likely will show their size increasing. The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey (ACS) data for 2018 has the Filipino population in Hawaii at 367,952.

But as Belinda A. Aquino, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and political scientist, said “numbers are meaningless if they are not translated to real power in terms of becoming a force to be reckoned with in the social, economic and political life of the larger community.”

She elaborates, “Filipinos like to say that they are the fastest growing and second largest ethnic minority in the state but it should not stop there. Real empowerment can only be achieved if all citizens who are registered to vote will actually vote in every election, which Filipinos often take for granted, or don’t really assert and exercise this right.”

In the 2018 primary election, there were 741,007 registered voters. Of that, 38.6 percent or 286,180 turned out to vote. In the 2018 general election, turnout was at 52.7 percent.

The state’s Office of Elections do not track voting by ethnicity. But political experts, like Dr. Aquino, have said “Filipinos are known on record as having one of the lowest turnouts in Hawaii.”

Voting Shapes Policy
Aquino says voting is critical because it will determine the course of policy-making in government, which in turn determines the kind of community we can build. “Voting is the path to shaping a government we all deserve, and the quality of life that we can all enjoy with our dedicated participation and engagement in public affairs.”

Wayland Quintero, a registered voter, Aiea resident, also points out the strong correlation between voting and policymaking. “The candidates we elect will decide how tax monies are used on education, the environment, healthcare, housing, labor and business regulations.”

Gives opportunity to uplift marginalized groups
Quintero said elections can be a positive tool to uplift historical and marginalized groups. He gives an example that voting can render improvements in race and class divisions. But if voter turnout is low, he said an election can also be a tool to perpetuate the status quo, “to feed systemic White privilege and White supremacy, and exclude BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) + LGBT people, immigrants and people who are incarcerated.”

Helps underrepresented groups like Filipinos with higher education
For Lizzette Martin of Moanalua, voting for politicians who support education for underrepresented communities like Filipinos and Native Hawaiians meant she was able to receive financial assistance through the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity (SEED) program. 

“The political culture in Hawaii is Democrat. And as far as education goes, Democrat politicians have been very supportive of increasing access to minority groups like Filipinos to receive higher education through programs like SEED. Each financial assistance received can make a difference; and SEED was there for me during my college years. I was able to complete my bachelor’s in science in nursing. So you see voting actually has a real life impact.”

Affirms “people” power
For Marylou Domingo, formerly of Pearl City, now a New York resident, she votes because she believes it’s the only way to bring balance in a democracy. “The ‘people’ have been increasingly left out of the political process. Big corporations over small businesses, highly influential lobbying groups over regular citizens – all have taken over the way government operates, and weakens democracy. We see the interests of profit over the interests of regular people which has been making our lives more difficult each year. We see big-monied influence in local governments from city councils to state legislatures to Congress and the presidency.

“How is it that people cannot afford to live and things remain the same? It’s because democracy is not properly functioning for the people. Each time I vote, I am hopeful that something will change, that politicians will finally represent the interests of the people. It also doesn’t help that the Supreme Court has made it easier for corporations to buy elections,” said Domingo.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v FEC that government could not prohibit the limit of independent expenditures on political speech. This paved the way for SuperPACS to throw unlimited amount of money in support of political candidates. While political candidates still have campaign spending limits, SuperPACS can run as many TV commercials, radio ads, print ads on behalf of any candidate they support or oppose.

“SuperPACS represent the interests of big money and the organized. It takes tens of thousands of individuals with small donations to counter the power of just one SuperPAC. We see SuperPACS will also do the dirty work by dirty campaign ads, usually against a candidate they oppose. I was still living in Hawaii when former Gov. Ben Cayetano ran for mayor of Honolulu and was smeared by a SuperPac.

“But we the people have the last say. We have our votes. This is where it really counts,” said Domingo. “Voting is about affirming people power in a healthy democracy.”

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) national voting turnout improving
According to a 2018 survey conducted by AAPI Data and APIA Vote, the 2018 elections saw a 14-point jump in Asian American turnout compared to 2014, even as AAPI groups say neither the Democratic or Republican parties have made serious outreach to get the AAPI community to vote.

Traditionally, AAPI have had low voter turnout so political parties never made significant efforts to get them involved. But this is changing, especially now that data shows a significant jump in voter turnout. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for a first time has hired a full-time AAPI outreach director and are investing more in resources to get AAPI voters.

AAPI will play pivotal role in swing districts
AAPI Vote and AAPI Data predicts 2020 could also be pivotal in swing districts in California and Texas. In the 2018 election, 77 percent of AAPI voters supported a Democratic House candidate in the midterm. In swing districts, like California’s 45th congressional district that was flipped to Democrat by the election of Rep. Katie Porter, political analysts believe that win was attributed in part to that district’s large AAPI residents, about 25 percent.

“What we saw in the 2018 midterms was that Asian Americans were more likely to live in competitive districts because the battleground districts expanded significantly in 2018,” said UC Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan.

According to a DCCC survey, AAPI’s top priority is health care. Twenty-eight percent of people listed health care as the issue they’d like their Congressional member to focus on the most, followed by 22 percent who were most interested in the economy and jobs.

Issues important to Filipino Americans
Besides health care, Professor Aquino said Filipinos are mostly concerned with two issues – the first orbits around various immigration policies and the second relates to educational/employment opportunities.

On immigration, she mentions family reunification (petitioning of families), long waiting periods for relatives to immigrate to the U.S. (immigrants want to shorten that time), even the legalization of DACA “dreamers” as concerns for Filipino voters. “The children of Filipino veterans who fought alongside with the American military during WWII with a promise that they will be able to petition their children to become citizens after the war was over [is another concern],” said Aquino. 

She describes, “After the war, the US Congress reneged on this ‘promise’ for no reason at all, and the veterans had been petitioning their children who have not been able to come to the US even after 20 or so years. It’s a terrible injustice done to Filipinos who have always been loyal allies of the US especially during wartime.

On higher education, she says there has been improvement among Filipinos, but the rate hasn’t been fast enough. “While Americans of Filipino ancestry have been going to college in greater numbers since the 1960s, their numbers in the rungs of higher education have not reached appreciable levels in the state. Many still prefer to join the military after high school or to land jobs to help out with their families as soon as they can.”

The right to vote – remember historical context
Quintero says he cannot think of reasons why any person who can legally vote and who identities as Filipino, Filipino American or Filipinx would not vote, especially considering how hard others fought for this right.

“I wonder how many people realize that in the past, if a person was not a white man who owned land, or if one was Native American, a female, or an adult who could not pay a poll tax, or who was determined by the government to be ‘illiterate,’ that these persons were excluded from voting,” he said.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally corrected long-standing voting obstacles and cleared the way for racial minorities to vote. Section 2 of the Act prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Literacy tests that were historically used against racial minorities were outlawed.

Quintero said voting can be viewed as fulfilling an obligation to those who fought for the right to vote.

“Voting is the path to shaping a government we all deserve, and the quality of life that we can all enjoy with our dedicated participation and engagement in public affairs…Filipinos like to say that they are the fastest-growing and second-largest ethnic minority in the state but it should not stop there. Real empowerment can only be achieved if all citizens who are registered to vote will actually vote in every election, which Filipinos often take for granted, or don’t really assert and exercise this right.”

— Belinda A. Aquino, PhD
Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Political Scientist

Voting by Mail
Initially meant to protect voters from contracting COVID-19 during voting at traditional polling sites, Act 136 adopted by lawmakers to conduct the state’s first-ever all-mail in election could have an additional benefit in finally raising voter turnout this year. Hawaii has long had the lowest or near lowest voter turnout in the nation. 

Registering to Vote. Voters who have moved, changed their name or mailing address, must update their voter registration. It can be done online by visiting elections.hawaii. gov. If you are uncertain if you are registered, you can visit the same website by logging in with your Hawaii Driver License or State ID.

If you haven’t registered to vote, you must do it online (same website) or by mail by July 9, 2020, at 4:30 p.m.

Voter registration application can be downloaded at elections.hawaii.gov/voters/ applications or it can be picked up at the Office of Elections, County Elections Divisions, State Libraries, U.S. Post Offices, most State Agencies, Satellite City Halls.

How mail-in voting will work? Once you have registered, all registered voters will automatically receive a mail ballot packet about 18 days prior to the primary and general election. For the Primary, ballots will be delivered on July 21; for the General, on Oct. 16. If voters do not receive their ballot package within 4 days after the delivery dates, voters should contact the Clerk’s Office (808) 453- VOTE (8683) immediately.

After you have voted, place the ballot in the secrecy sleeve (provided), and then place it into the return envelope. The return envelope MUST be signed or your ballot will not be counted. The return envelope is postage paid and addressed to your Clerk’s Office.

Ballots could be returned by mail or in person at your Clerk’s office.

Your ballot must be received by the Clerk’s Office by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Primary Election Day is Aug. 8, 2020; General Election day is Nov. 3, 2020. Your ballot should be mailed at least 5 days PRIOR to Election Day to ensure it is received on time.

Voting in person will still be available. There will be no traditional voting sites near your neighborhood as in the past. But in-person voting will be allowed at Voter Service Centers. For locations, visit elections.hawaii.gov. Voting Service Centers will be open 10 days before the primary and general election. Voters can also drop off their mail-in ballots at these Centers.

Voter Service Centers will be open from July 27 through Aug. 7, Mon-Sat, 8 am-4:30 pm; and Saturday, Aug. 8 (Primary Election Day) from 7 am-7 p.m. At these Centers, there will also be same-day voter registration if you’ve missed the July 9, 2020 deadline. 

Aquino expressed reservations over the new mail-in system and suggests the state establish an electoral literacy program for residents who might need guidance. “Many of them do not understand the instructions, let alone properly complete their mail ballots for both the primary and general elections,” she said.

Quintero said voting by mail makes it safer during this pandemic. “Overall, voting by mail can encourage greater participation instead of limiting individuals to have to physically show up at a voting precinct. As there will be people who for various reasons prefer to vote in-person, this preference ought to be facilitated even if voting by mail is the primary option.”

The new all-mail in election is a big question mark for many. The procedure seems simple enough, but it could be problematic. Having two options, mail-in and vote-in person, could be beneficial. Some residents are saying having the lowest voter turnout in the nation, Hawaii’s new system can only get better with registered voters actually voting. This year’s big election change just might be what’s needed.

Remember to vote. Every vote makes a difference. Every vote matters.

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