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Even the high stakes of this year’s general election were not enough to get many Hawaii voters to the polls.
Once again, voter turnout appeared to be abysmally low Tuesday, continuing a trend that has given the state the distinction of being worst in the nation.
It’s too soon to know if the Aloha State will hold onto that crown this year as the turnout numbers have yet to verified, but it’s all but certain Hawaii will be bouncing along the bottom.
Based on uncertified numbers from the Hawaii Elections Office, of the registered 706,890 registered voters, only 52.3 percent cast ballots.
That means Hawaii set a new record for the lowest turnout in a general election. The next lowest was in 2006 when just over 52.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
It might be hard to understand why voter turnout this year is so low given the competitive races between gubernatorial candidates David Ige and Duke Aiona and congressional candidates Mark Takai and Charles Djou.
It’s not often a Republican — and in this case two Republicans — had such good odds of taking power leading up to the general election. Both Aiona and Djou were within striking distance before Tuesday’s election.
Political analyst Neal Milner said competitive races tend to increase voter turnout. So does same-day registration, which starts in Hawaii in 2016.
But Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii, also said voter apathy here has become a habit.
“Political consciousness and awareness is an acquired taste, and so is not paying attention,” Milner said. “It takes more than one particular election to increase the voter turnout.”
One idea that intrigues him is shaming non-voters to go to the polls. It’s a motivational method that has been used in other parts of the country to relative good effect.
The way it works is a flyer is sent into a neighborhood comparing residents’ voting records to that of their neighbors. If someone sees that they’re the only one in the neighborhood who doesn’t vote during a midterm election, then it might push them to head to the polls the next time.
A similar tactic is used by water and electric utilities to get get people to consume less. Think of it as a new take on keeping up with the Joneses.
Hawaii hasn’t always had low voter turnout. After becoming a state in 1959, turnout for general elections was more than 90 percent.
It remained in the high 70s and 80s all the way up through 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president.
It’s hard to figure out what happened from there, as the state saw voter participation continually slide, particularly in primary elections. Hawaii’s all-time low voter turnout was 38.6 percent in 2008.
“No one has really taken a good look at why this tanked,” Milner said. “There are still all kinds of puzzles out there about why we dropped so much after 1992.”
One bright spot this year, however, is the lack of any major Election Day controversy.
There were only a few hiccups involving a couple of broken ballot machines, which caused some short delays Tuesday morning.
And as with previous elections, some polling places didn’t report when they were closed, which resulted in the first set of numbers coming out later than anticipated.
“It’s going pretty well,” said Elections Office spokesman Rex Quidilla. “We’ve worked really hard to buff out the edges and improve our process.”
Hawaii election officials at both the state and county levels have come under intense scrutiny the past two election cycles over high-profile flubs, dysfunction and disorganization.
In 2012, then-Hawaii County Elections Officer Jamae Kawauchi made headlines after a series of missteps that started with an ill-informed decision to close her office just weeks before the primary to conduct an internal audit.
More than a dozen polling places on the Big Island also failed to open on time during that 2012 primary, causing Gov. Neil Abercrombie to issue an emergency proclamation to extend voting hours.
The Hawaii Office of Elections then issued a report that blasted Kawauchi for the fiasco, and took over for the general election.
This year has been no less troublesome. After Tropical Storm Iselle rocked the Puna District on the Big Island, many voters were unable to get to the polls.
A tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa magnified the situation as those voters could have swung the election.
While Nago allowed certain Puna voters to cast their ballots later in the week, there were widespread complaints that many others who were affected by the storm were unable to vote.
Adding to the drama were 800 uncounted ballots that were found on Maui several days after the primary.
Lawsuits were filed by Hanabusa and the ACLU over voter disenfranchisement, and although neither went anywhere, Nago was once again painted as a villain. Some lawmakers even called for his termination.
But on Tuesday Nago appeared relaxed, and spoke confidently about how the election was going.
While he admitted that the process could be improved to increase accessibility, turnout and transparency, he dismissed the previous calls for him to lose his job.
“All we can control is the election,” Nago said. “We can’t control what outside people say.”