Elle Cochran grew up far too enchanted by Maui's rocky coastline and beach-bum lifestyle to care a thing about politics and voting.
"You get up, work, go to the beach, sleep -- and do it again," she said of life on this Hawaiian island, which, of course, is known for its surf. "It's just this routine."
But after a real estate project was proposed on Honolua Bay -- a cliff-lined cove near her home that's known for its ruler-straight waves -- she decided to do something that's bizarre for a non-voter. She ran for county council.
"I never voted until I ran for office," she said.
In other words: The first ballot she cast was for herself.
In what state but Hawaii would that even be possible?
I came to the Aloha State not for the beaches, volcanoes and helicopter tours but because Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation. In the 2008 presidential race, when Barack Obama -- Hawaii's body-surfing, shaka-throwing native son -- was at the top of the ticket, fewer than half of eligible Hawaii residents voted. Compare that with the No. 1 civic-minded state, Minnesota, where 78% cast ballots.
We can all agree that's a problem, right?
No matter how little you care for politics, it seems unhealthy -- criminal, some people in Hawaii told me -- that such a small slice of the electorate makes decisions that affect the quality of life for everyone in the state, including the majority that doesn't vote. This is all the more shocking when you consider that more than 90% of registered voters in Hawaii participated in elections for several years after statehood in 1959. People cared about what their newborn state would turn into. Somewhere along the way, enthusiasm died.
Before I came to Hawaii, it was tempting to blame the state's low turnout on apathetic surfers -- and on stereotypes of people who bum their way through life. But eight days, seven flights, three islands (one luau) and dozens of interviews later, I realized there are much-less-obvious forces at play on this island state, too.
I met people like Nani Teruya, a fiery 51-year-old who throws her head back like Kermit the Frog when she laughs. She says the U.S. is illegally occupying Hawaii, and she doesn't vote on principle. Then there's Sam Slom, Hawaii's one and only Republican state senator, who says voters don't care because it seems like the Democratic Party controls everything in the state. Or Nanci Munroe, 55, who was driving to her polling place during one presidential election when she learned that it didn't matter how she voted: The winner was announced on her car radio. (Because Hawaii is six hours behind the East Coast, national elections often are called by the news media, and Twitter, before Hawaii finishes voting.)
All of these factors lead people here to feel disconnected from the other 49 states and from politics in general. This place of smoldering volcanoes, house-sized ferns and melt-the-horizon sunsets is just very different from the rest.
"We have nothing in common: language, culture," said Tama Kaleleiki, whom I met after a church service on Maui where the hymns are sung in Hawaiian and accompanied by a ukulele. The U.S. and Hawaii, he said, are like "apples and bananas."
This little election-minded romp through paradise was part of a new CNN effort called Change the List. Our tagline: "Bringing change to places that need it most." We start with a list and then tackle the place at the bottom of the ranks, with the hope not of shaming that place but of starting a conversation that could boost it into higher standings.
That's a lot of pressure, right? On the trip, I definitely felt it. Throughout the journey -- and, let's be honest, pretty much life -- I was plagued with doubt: Is our money-hungry, attack-heavy, non-responsive democracy too far gone? Is apathy too entrenched? What if the choice of candidates isn't good enough? Does one vote out of millions actually matter? And isn't surfing more fun than voting, anyway?
I wasn't sure change was even possible.
'Stop doing nothing?!'
It didn't help that the first person I met laughed in my face
Against all logic and modern airplane etiquette, I decided to strike up a conversation with the woman seated next to me on the 9-hour, 40-minute flight from Atlanta to Honolulu.
There are (at least) two reasons I should have known better:
1. She had stuffed three bags, one of them a cooler full of food, under the seat in front of her.
2. When I was returning from the bathroom, I saw all 10 of her toes floating in the air above her headrest. She was doing some sort of meditative yoga. Knees in face. Shoes off, wearing pink-and-white-striped socks, the kind that separate toes into creepy foot-fingers.
When she finished the routine, I asked whether she was from Hawaii. She said yes and asked me why I was headed to the Aloha State. For work, I said, being intentionally generic.
"F*** you, maaaaan!" she said.