"When people's voices aren't there to shape democracy, other forces fill the void."
To that point, Kanu is trying to increase voter turnout in the state in two ways: by registering people to vote and by going door to door, telling people why voting matters. The group's goal was to register 900 new voters by November; as of this meeting in late September, they had hit 800. Clipboard-toting volunteers had knocked on 312 doors.
Listening to the presentation, I couldn't help but be inspired. The numbers do get in the way, though. How can knocking on 312 doors matter in a state of 1.4 million people?
As if reading my mind, Koshiba addressed this point.
When volunteers go door to door, asking people what issues matter to them as well as asking them to vote, they're "re-knitting" the fabric of communities in Hawaii, he said, some of which has long been fraying. They're giving anonymous residents a voice.
It seems to be working. Kanu didn't start working on voter turnout until this year. During the primary, the group targeted House District 48 on Oahu. While voter turnout dropped 1% for the state as a whole, it increased more than 4% in that district, where volunteers canvassed 980 homes, sent 1,000 e-mails and registered 621 new voters.
Still, I wanted to see them in action before I would believe that going up to a random person's door and asking them to vote would work. Can you imagine if someone knocked on your door, unannounced, and told you it was important to them that you voted?
I wasn't sure how I would react.
'I thought they were crazy'
It was 2006 when Cochran first heard about the development project.
The pitchmen took her and other surfers out to lunch; they wanted that community's buy-in. They showed her blueprints for new showers and picnic tables that would benefit the surfers.
"They just dangle the cheery in front of you so you buy what they're trying to sell."
At first, the proposed development at Honolua Bay -- the pristine, world-renowned surf spot near Cochran's home on Maui -- seemed benign enough. But after doing some research, Cochran and other surfers discovered further plans, not just for showers and tables, she said, but for a golf course and gated community.
She was outraged.
For Cochran, the seeds of civic engagement had been planted when a friend asked her to volunteer with a group that conducts surveys of marine life in protected bays. During those surveys, she felt like she was making a difference, protecting something she loved.
There was little she loved more than Honolua Bay.
She and her husband, surf shop owner Wayno Cochran, who moved to Maui as a teenager because of the surf at Honolua Bay, started the Save Honolua Coalition.
When their efforts to protect the bay seemed to stall out, a friend suggested that Elle run for office. "I thought they were crazy," she said. She was 45 and had never cast a ballot. From 1984 (Reagan-Mondale) all the way through Obama's election in 2008, the opportunity passed her by. She wasn't the kind of person who was into politics -- or who had a cause.
But she felt strongly that the bay needed to be protected. So she ran.
Maybe this would be the new her? The surfer turned politician.
Into the voting desert
The Saturday after I met with Kanu's keyboard-tapping volunteers, I decided to go canvassing with them. We met in the parking lot of a Safeway in downtown Honolulu, near the windward side of the island, which catches most of the rain and, therefore, looks like something out of "Lost" or "Jurassic Park." Edythe McNamee, the videographer who traveled with me on this trip, kept looking up into the craggy, jungle-covered peaks near the capital and joking that a pterodactyl might swoop out at any moment.
As we crossed a ridge on a two-lane highway, we saw a part of Oahu that most tourists don't: the leeward side. It's so dry that it looks like Tucson or suburban L.A.
Joe Heaukulani, 36, one of Kanu's volunteers, would later explain to me that this desert image also applies to voter turnout rates in the area, known as the Waianae Coast. Kanu tried to make maps of this area showing voters and non-voters by house. But data sets identified only voting households. All of the maps of Waianae, Heaukulani said, were "pretty much blank." All non-voters.
Our crew regrouped at a picnic table in the neighborhood we were going to canvass, a place of bland, khaki-colored homes with plastic siding. Kanu's executive director passed out clipboards and colorful folders containing voter registration forms. He also doled out instructions: "A lot of times, it helps to call out away from the door or from the sidewalk -- like, 'Aloha!' -- and people will come meet you halfway."