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Note: There is more information on Hawaii's plebiscite posted on the Statehood Hawaii blog: "The Statehood Plebiscite" and "Plebiscite Summarized".

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As we look at the July 27th 1959 plebiscite, and consider its importance in the statehood process, we should consider that of the 132,773 who voted for Proposition 1—“Shall Hawaii immediately be admitted into the Union as a State?”—7,971 voted against it. In this 17-1 mandate by those voting in Hawaii’s 1959 primary election for governor, a total of 140,744 votes were cast in this plebiscite.

Roger Bell writes: "By an overwhelming majority, 132,938 votes to 7,854, Hawaii's people accepted the statehood bill. This was the most accurate gauge of statehood opinion, and it suggested that less than 6 percent of Hawaii's adult citizens felt strongly enough to register outright opposition. Almost 90 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots in the plebiscite. This was the heaviest election turnout in Hawaii's history. Dan Tuttle commented that both the size of the turnout and the affirmative vote surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. Even if it is conceded that many of those opposed to statehood did not register their opinions at the ballot box, the anti-statehood faction could not have comprised more than 15 percent of Hawaii's citizens by 1959. The reliability of the opinion surveys conducted from 1956-1959 is thus suspect. Local opposition was not as strong as these surveys suggested."1

In contrast to Bell, we might consider that the 1950 census for the population of Hawaii was 499,769 while the 1960 census for the population of Hawaii was 632,772, the median age being 38. Not taking into account the population growth from the date of the plebiscite vote (June 27th 1959) to 1960 when the nearest census was completed, or the breakdown of age eligibility for voting, that leaves about 500,000 people (total) unaccounted for. Although the census does not include the military, many of whom did participate in the vote, roughly only about 35% of the total population actually voted "yes" or "no" on the plebiscite.

If we conservatively remove 250,972—a third of the population—as being ineligible to vote because of age, we are left with roughly 381,859 eligible voters. Examining the data, one could argue that out of the 474,580 who were eligible to vote in 1959, 341,800. —or roughly 65%— did not vote in favor of statehood.

What this suggests is that those who did not participate in the primary election either did not care about the statehood results, or were not informed about the process enough to participate in the vote. The underwhelming turnout for something so important is of concern. Considering that the State of Hawaii cites this plebiscite vote as determinate proof of public support for statehood creates what Daniel Elazar, Professor of Political Science at Temple University in Philadelphia describes as an ersatz legitimacy of a democratic technique to the political decision making process.

In his paper of referenda and plebiscites, Elazar writes: "The Jacobins invented the plebiscite which, from the first, was a device to assist governments of the kind that the late Jacob Talmon referred to (in a useful oxymoron) as "totalitarian democracies" to achieve legitimacy. They would have the people vote on a single issue when it arose to provide backing for the revolutionary regime. Plebiscites have continued in that form and have been used principally by totalitarian regimes seeking an ersatz legitimacy through voting consent after the fact, after an action has been completed."

Critics might compare the plebiscite election to a “snooze-you-lose” process whereby those who weren’t aware of the issues or for whatever reason, were unable to vote, were marginalized by the process.

Those critical might also be concerned by the timing of the plebiscite when the incumbent Governor Quinn by proclamation, designated the general election as the date by which this important decision be made. John A. Burns and Mitsuyuki Kido were the Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, while William Quinn and James Kealoha were on the Republican ticket. It could be argued that holding the plebiscite at the same time as the general election could have clouded and overwhelmed the plebiscite debate.

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BACK TO POST 1. Bell, Roger J. "Last Among Equals:Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics." Fiftieth State. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu,1984. 258-59.

*Source: Robert C. Schmitt. Demographic Statistics of Hawaii: 1778-1965. (Honolulu, 1968). United States. Bureau of the Census. 1970, 1980, 1990 Census of Population. General Population Characteristic. (Washington, D.C.)


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