Valarie Robertson arrived Saturday at her polling station at Kahakai Elementary School and eagerly waited less than five minutes to cast her ballot in the hotly contested Hawaii County mayor’s race and other primaries.
With the general election just a couple of months away, Robertson was among the less than half of registered voters statewide who participated in the primary election. Only 290,724 of Hawaii’s 687,500 registered voters, or 42.3 percent, cast ballots. Of those voters, 148,239 did so in a polling booth and 142,414 submitted absentee ballots.
Robertson, 65, has voted in every local election since moving to the Big Island 15 years ago and was not deterred, even though Kahakai Elementary was among the nearly half of West Hawaii precincts that opened late. She said her decisions were based on whether she thought the candidate would ensure a fair government, help bring the economy back to where it needed to be and vowed to reform the highly abused welfare system, all of which she deemed “very important.”
“Your vote is your voice, and elections are opportunities to be heard,” she added.
Judging from the final election returns, it seems not everyone agrees with that sentiment. Hawaii voter turnout continues to be among the lowest in the U.S. On the Big Island, 42.6 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Saturday’s primary election. Of the 101,728 registered voters, 20,246 voted on Aug. 11 and 23,101 cast an absentee ballot beforehand.
In the 2010 primary election, there were 100,061 registered voters, yet only 38,999, or 39 percent, cast ballots, less than the 41 percent who voted in 2008, or the 42 percent turnout in 2006.
Daryl Smith, Hawaii County Republican Party chairman and state Senate District 2 candidate, said the voter turnout falls in line with past election figures. He added some people think registering to vote is essentially registering for jury duty — a misconception he’s heard in conversations with residents.
However, he also thinks the multiple Hawaii Island polling stations opening later than scheduled because of a supply issue had an impact. Delays at the affected polling places varied from a few minutes to more than an hour. Still unknown is the total number voters affected, as well as how many people left and came back — or didn’t — he added. Smith said he was among the first to visit the county elections office in Hilo Saturday morning and file an official complaint.
Voters at Kahakai Elementary, Kona Vistas Recreation Center and Kona Palisades Community Center were told poll books and voter registrations lists, arriving from Hilo, were not delivered on time. Polls were supposed to open at 7 a.m. Saturday, but didn’t open until 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. at those locations.
According to precinct reports, Kona Vistas Recreation Center had a significant decrease in participation Saturday. Only 647 of the 3,720 registered voters, or 17.4 percent, cast ballots there. Two years ago, the amount of registered voters here was 863 fewer, but the primary turnout was 646 voters, or 22.6 percent.
Only 543 of the 3,770 registered voters, or 14.4 percent, at Kahakai Elementary voted election day, a drop from the 2010 primary. The precinct then had a 18.3 percent turnout, or 701 of its 3,824 registered voters.
Just 501 of the 2,870 registered voters, or 17.5 percent, at Kona Palisades Community Center participated Saturday. In the 2010 primary, this precinct had a 21.1 percent turnout, or 781 of its 3,708 registered voters.
State Elections Office spokesman Rex Quidilla said his office does not comment on voter turnout. A debriefing will soon be held with all county clerks to discuss any problems and successes that arose Saturday, as well as improvements and modifications for the Nov. 6 general election. Such a debriefing is a standard practice following all elections, he added.
Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi did not return messages requesting comment as of press time.
Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairman Steven Pavao said voter turnout was pretty much what he anticipated — the same as in past elections — and still “a disappointment,” especially when considering the overall total of eligible voting-age adults. “Many more people in Hawaii could have voted if they wanted to,” he added. He attributed the poor participating to “voter apathy,” a term that implies nonvoters don’t care about politics or about who is elected to office.
Pavao was also not surprised turnout figures locally and statewide showed absentee voting was more popular. He listed the convenience and the fact that permanent absentee voting applications were mailed for the first time this year to every registered Hawaii County voter as reasons.
One way to engage more voters, especially the younger ones who are more plugged into social media, would be to consider seriously integrating online voting, he added.
Smith sent a mass email Monday urging recipients to show support for the candidates from their neighborhoods by hosting coffee hours, barbecues, potlucks and other group events between now and Nov. 5.