"Even if you convince one person," he said, "that means you did make a difference."
I would have to hear his personal story before that was something I could actually believe.
The prince and his cargo shorts
Elle Cochran's friend greeted me with a sweaty kiss on the cheek. We were standing on the lawn of a white, pitched-roof church surrounded by longneck palm trees. Nani Teruya hurried me inside and into a pew near the back of the small, open-air sanctuary, ceiling fans whirring above.
I was excited to meet her because she seemed like such a contradiction: She knocks on doors for her friend, holds signs with Cochran's name on them. But she won't go through with the act of casting a ballot.
I wanted to understand why.
We settled into the back of the church as piano and ukulele music started to play. People sang in Hawaiian.
"E ho'omaika'I kakou ia Ke Akua," the minister said.
"Come, let us worship God," the congregation echoed in English.
It wasn't until about 20 minutes into the service that I realized I was seated right behind a prince -- one wearing cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
After the service, I tapped Prince Michael Kauhiokalani on the shoulder and asked if he had a minute to talk. He took me to a field beside the church where an ancient king and queen of the Hawaiian Kingdom, his distant relatives, are buried and entombed.
His sister, Princess Owana Ka'ohelelani, came with us. She brought up an ugly piece of Hawaii's history: the part when U.S. business interests essentially took over the island nation without the consent of its ruling monarchy.
This thread of Hawaii's story was new to me when I set off for the islands, but when I landed in Honolulu, the first place I went was Iolani Palace, now a museum. For $12, you can see the upstairs chamber where Queen Lili'uokalani, the last monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was held on charges of treason, brought by local businessmen. A judge named Sanford Dole basically forced the queen to abdicate the throne in 1895 by promising pardons for her supporters.
The queen's chamber is haunting. In the center is a bright-colored, ornately stitched quilt Lili'uokalani made during the time she spent as a prisoner in her own home. A palace library also holds the sheet music for songs she wrote, including "Aloha 'Oe," which, as Sarah Vowell points out in her smart history of the takeover, was played at the inauguration of Obama, the first U.S. president from Hawaii. (Vowell wonders what the queen would have thought of that moment.)
"It was just a very, very evil thing -- an act of war," Princess Ka'ohelelani told me of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States. "And what does the queen do? She writes a song. She chose to forgive. ... She chose a path of peace, love and acceptance."
That history looms over the present here like morning fog on the mountains. It's the reason Teruya doesn't vote. She and others are so upset about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom -- which the United States didn't apologize for until 1993 -- that they don't participate in U.S. elections. They don't recognize the government. Hawaii only became a state in 1959. Memories are fresh.
The prince and princess invited me to stay for lunch at the church. After grabbing a plate of rice, cabbage and fried chicken -- typically international fare -- we sat at a table with Teruya. I brought up the subject of voting to see where everyone stood on the topic.
"I can voice myself in many, many different ways," Teruya said, defending her decision not to vote. She later would tell me that if she cast a ballot, she would feel like she lost part of her Hawaiian identity. "I don't need to sign that piece of paper."
I felt silly and small in that moment. Who was I to come to Hawaii to encourage people to vote when at least some chunk of the population feels voting is morally wrong? Maybe the most appropriate political statement, in this case, is to withhold a vote.
But the prince made a strong rebuttal.
If you don't vote, he said, then how could the Hawaiian Kingdom be restored?
'I think I got 12 votes'
Personal experience taught Joe Heaukulani that asking a person to vote works.
The evening after we went canvassing in Oahu's voter desert, I met Heaukulani at his brother's high-rise apartment building in Waikiki, the ritzy, touristy area of Honolulu. He never cast a ballot himself until age 34. No one had ever asked him to, he said, and politics just wasn't something he thought much about. He was more into video games. But then, in 2010, he saw a link to Kanu's website shared via Twitter. He clicked it and found a page that asked him to make a pledge to vote for the first time.
For whatever reason, he said yes. That decision was the start of an incredible transformation. It led to his current hobby: spending weekends convincing other people that their votes matter. And, like Cochran, he eventually ran for office.