Absentee mail voting continues to grow in popularity, Hawaii election officials said Friday on the eve of Saturday’s primary election.

Nearly 110,500 mail-in ballots had been received in Oahu, Hawaii and Kauai counties as of Friday afternoon, and just 17,000 early walk-in voters had cast ballots. The Maui County Elections Office did not return calls.

In the 2014 primary, more than 27,000 early walk-in voters and 136,00 early mail-in voters participated statewide. Figures for mail-in votes are bound to rise as more ballots come in and are counted ahead of Saturday’s deadline, county officials say.

flickr: Vox Efx
More than half of Hawaii’s primary ballots were likely cast before Election Day. Flickr.com

Those same three counties reported having a total of nearly 636,000 registered voters Friday afternoon.

Hawaii’s 2014 primary was the first election that saw more ballots cast early (56 percent) than on Election Day. Eighty-three percent of those early voters mailed in their ballots.

Recent Hawaii elections haven’t always gone smoothly. In the last four years, boxes of ballots were temporarily lost, a tropical storm delayed voting at some Big Island precincts (thus delaying a decision in a nail-biter of a U.S. Senate race) and some polling places ran out of ballots.

Meanwhile, the islands’ voter turnout remains dismal. Since Hawaii became a state in 1959, voter turnout has dropped 41.3 percent.

Purging The Rolls

Hawaii’s low voter turnout may look worse than it really is due to voter lists that still contain people who have moved, died or gone to prison.

Election officials tend to wait until after a general election to purge voter rolls, usually the following February.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

In February 2015, more than 36,000 voters were purged. That comes out to just over 5 percent of the 706,890 voters who were registered for the 2014 general election, data shows.

Hawaii’s biggest purge was in 2003, when 104,000 voters were cleared off the list.

While voter lists are purged every couple of years, another chunk of voters are on the “fail-safe” list, which means they’re registered, but haven’t cast a ballot in years.

These voters are kept on a list until their respective county can confirm whether they should be purged. Fail-safe voters may have moved out-of-state or are otherwise ineligible, perhaps due to incarceration.

Hawaii had 93,336 fail-safe voters as of Friday morning.

In the 2014 primary, voter turnout could have been boosted from 42 to 47 percent if fail-safe voters were scratched off the list. Forty-seven percent would still place Hawaii among the lowest turnouts in the nation.

Then-state Sen. David Ige told Civil Beat after the 2014 primary that his gubernatorial campaign didn’t bother targeting fail-safe voters to maximize resources. Other politicians use the same strategy.

Should Mail Ballots Be The Only Ballots?

Though a bill to phase in mandatory mail voting for all elections flopped at the Legislature this year, Hawaii Chief Election Officer Scott Nago said people who switch to mail ballots generally think it’s “the best thing” they’ve ever done.

In February, while the mail-only voting bill was still alive in the Legislature, Nago told Civil Beat that his office favored the approach to both increase participation and save $800,000 annually.

Oregon, Colorado and Washington have made the switch to all-mail voting. Oregon did it in 1998 and has seen an uptick in voter turnout since.

Hawaii’s voter turnout, on the other hand, has been steadily declining.

Statistics on the Election Office’s website date back to the primary election of 1959, which boasted an 84.4 percent voter turnout. The 2014 primary saw less than half of that turnout — 41.5 percent.

And it doesn’t help matters that the state Elections Office has had a rocky past few years.

In the 2012 general election, 24 precincts were short on ballots, prompting long lines and hundreds of voters to give up and leave.

To prevent a repeat of 2012, Nago said a primary ballot for every potential voter was ordered in 2014. But that year’s primary brought a different kind of problem in the form of Tropical Storm Iselle, which forced a voting delay on parts of the Big Island.

Four days after the 2014 primary, 800 uncounted mail ballots were discovered in Maui County.

“Every election is different, we don’t know what to expect,” Nago said. Asked if he saw potential issues on the horizon of the primary, he said, “If I had any inkling, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

So far, Nago said, things are going smoothly.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 6 p.m., but Nago said anyone in line prior to closing time will still be allowed to vote.

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