If early voting counts are any indication, Hawaii is likely looking at another low-turnout primary.

Statewide, about 145,000 ballots had been received by mail or from early polling places by Wednesday night, according to the state Office of Elections.

That pattern is similar to the 2016 primary, which had the lowest turnout in state history at 34.8 percent, Hawaii elections chief Scott Nago told Civil Beat on Thursday.

Thursday was the last day for early voting at polling places, but mail ballots can be returned until 6 p.m. Saturday.

There were 156,000 “absentee” votes — the combination of mail and early voting ballots — in the 2016 primary, or about 21 percent of registered voters in that year’s election. About 19.5 percent of registered voters had already voted as of Wednesday night.

“It’s going to be close. It’s hard to say,” Nago said of whether this year’s absentee total will exceed 2016. “Given one more day … it’s really hard to tell.”

But that’s not really the point, said Colin Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii.

“It’s going to be low,” Moore said. “I’m not sure it will be lower than the last midterm primary. But, it’ll be low.”

Early Voting 2018 Honolulu Hale polls wide. 4 aug 2018
Few people were taking advantage of early voting at Honolulu Hale on Saturday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Absentee counts in the past several elections have been rising even as total voter turnout has been falling.

In 2016, absentee ballots comprised about 62 percent of the total voter turnout. Absentee ballots first outnumbered traditional precinct ballots in 2014.

But Moore said the method of voting doesn’t really matter, adding that when it comes to voting, “It’s not a Hawaii thing.”

About 238,000 ballots were mailed out for this primary, and about 118,000 had been returned as of Wednesday night, according to the counties’ election offices.

Saturday’s primary will be the first time people can register at polling locations statewide on the day of the election. It’s not yet clear what sort of impact this might have on total turnouts.

Statewide voter registration was 741,007 as of the July 12 deadline for traditional registration.

Total registration, like absentee counts, has been rising in recent elections. But total voter turnout has not kept up with the increase in registration.

Moore said one reason that registration seems so high is because Hawaii must still purge some people who moved from its lists.

That makes turnout look even worse than it actually is, he said.

When looking at total numbers of votes cast, Hawaii’s best primary was 1994 when over 309,000 people voted. Total turnout took a nose dive in the 1996 primary election, dropping to 275,500 votes.

Primary vote counts have never breached the 300,000 mark since 1994, though they came close in 2010 and 2012 at over 290,000 each time.

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