Hawaiian voters share some common interests with residents of US overseas territories in the Pacific, many of whom are immigrating to the US mainland and registering to vote. Image: Flickr user Ryan Ozawa.

Why Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Voters Matter


Although they make up a very small percentage of the American electorate, there are three reasons political candidates–and those interested in the changing American demographic landscape–should care about Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (NHPIs). First, NHPIs are affiliated with and have ties to Asia, a region that historically has been (and continues to be) of strategic importance to the US. Second, over the past several years, the numbers of NHPI families settling on the US mainland have dramatically increased. And, third, the issues that are of concern to this population also are of concern to the general US electorate.

NHPIs are defined as those who self identify with indigenous populations in Hawai‘i, the US territories of American Samoa, Guam, and/or the Northern Marianas. They have similar though slightly different histories vis-à-vis the United States. In fact, historical treatment by the US government, as well as changing trade patterns in the Asia Pacific region, continues to motivate NHPIs to make their voices heard.

In Hawai‘i, US involvement began in 1875 with sugar plantations. The United States government imposed strict regulations on the voting rights of Native Hawaiians in such a way that the haole white community effectively controlled local elections. Until the 1960s, the US President appointed all governors and judges on Hawai‘i; and it was not until 1993, 34 years after becoming a US state, that Congress passed an “Apology Resolution” expressing regret for depriving Native Hawaiians of their right to self-determination. In American Samoa, the United States took possession of the eastern half of Samoa where it established a naval coaling station in Pago Pago Bay. In the late 1920s, the US president was charged with directing civil judicial and military powers; and since 1983, the US secretary of the interior holds all power as, in the eyes of the many Samoan residents, “a benevolent dictator.” Guam became an American colonial project in 1898 when the US navy identified the indigenous Chamorro population as “degenerate and potentially troublesome.” Eventually, the region was divided politically into the US Territory of Guam and the US Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Guam became home to a forward operation base for the US Navy and Air Force and, most recently, the United States moved its military operations to Guam from the Philippines and, despite resistance from the local Guamanian population, planned to move its military bases from Okinawa to Guam.

Residents in the US-controlled territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands do not have the right to vote in US national elections, though they do elect nonvoting delegates to the US House of Representatives. Interestingly, between 2000 and 2010, there has been a 40% increase of NHPIs migrating to the mainland United States, where they become eligible to vote in all elections. Approximately 35% of NHPIs were under the age of 18 in 2010 will be of voting age in time for the next election in 2016. In a study conducted by the National Asian American Survey in 2012, 62% of Native Hawaiians and 54% of Samoans are likely voters. In fact, a growing number of NHPIs live in the battleground state of Nevada; and as of 2014, more American Samoans lived in the state of Utah than in American Samoa. One reason for the migration is that American Samoa has taken a major hit as US trade with countries in East Asia has shifted trade away from the Pacific Islands, thus significantly weakening their economies.

In the 2012 presidential election, the NHPI voter turnout was close to 80%. One reason for this high turnout is due to the mobilization initiatives of community organizations, such as Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, which has networks that extend across the United States. These organizations easily communicate through social media (the most popular form being Instagram) with those who have settled in the key states of Arkansas, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Washington, Oregon, and California.

Among the hot button issues for NHPIs is, understandably, sovereignty. Those who still have family in the Pacific Islands are very aware of the US government’s foreign policy toward Asia, especially in terms of US military objectives in the Pacific and increased trade relations with the countries of East Asia. Furthermore, many are interested in social programs such as healthcare and education – common concerns of many American voters that not only affect NHPIs who are living the US but also those who reside in the greater Pacific region and whose programs receive support from the US Congress.

Peg Christoff is a Lecturer in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University.