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KILAUEA, Kauai — Of the 534 people who voted in Saturday’s primary at Kilauea Elementary School, three were from one family of two beaming, proud parents and a son who’d just turned 18.
The first-time voter was one of a couple of dozen who took advantage of Hawaii’s new same-day registration rules to cast a ballot. He was only one of perhaps a half-dozen very young voters in their late teens or very early 20s who had their first experiences in participatory democracy at the Kilauea polling station.
One of them was a 20-year-old who’d flown home to Kilauea from UH Manoa, where he’s majoring in kinesiology, to vote.
And yet, despite the apparent success of same-day registration, the walk-in turnout was far lower than the 986 voters who cast ballots at Kilauea Elementary in 2016 and 990 in 2014, according to state election totals. The fact that in 2020 Kauai County will be the test bed for the recently enacted statewide vote-by-mail system leaves at least theoretical hope that abysmal voter participation may improve.
Then there was a young mom of three kids who rushed into the polling place about 10 minutes before the 6 p.m. closing. Little did she know that since she was the last voter, state election rules required her to certify in writing that she had inspected the inside of the vote scanning machine to ensure that no inappropriate ballots had been cast.
She did so with a smile because, she said, getting involved brought the idea of “civic duty” to life. But, sitting on the stage in the school cafeteria polling place, she also commented that helping poll workers remove all the ballots from the scanner provided some “serious adulting time.”
This was a snapshot of a primary that was the opening act in the most consequential Kauai County election in a generation. The mayor’s office is being vacated by term-limited Bernard Carvalho, who ran third for lieutenant governor. Three County Council seats are open to nonincumbents due to one member giving up his seat to run for mayor and two terming out, while also running for mayor.
Because Carvalho has not designated an heir, the highest office on Kauai is in play for the first time in memory with an opportunity for significant change on the council. While the general election will finish the story, the primary suggests at least two major developments.
First, County Councilman Derek Kawakami crushed the second-place finisher, Council Chair Mel Rapozo, 9,066 votes to 4,145. Third place went to Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, with 3,718. This probably ends Yukimura’s 28-year career in Kauai elective office.
Correction: An earlier version of this column suggested Derek Kawakami would be the first mayoral candidate to have served in the House. In fact, Tony Kunimura was elected Kauai mayor in 1982 after having served for 20 years in the House.
It also virtually hands Kawakami victory in November since Rapozo and Yukimura have clashed repeatedly over the last two years. Although Kawakami roused some opposition by supporting a controversial proposed dairy farm near Poipu on the South Shore, a majority of Yukimura’s votes seem destined for Kawakami’s column.
Possibly of even greater long-range import, though, was the breakout performance of Luke Evslin in the County Council primary, where he outpolled one of the four incumbents running for re-election — a rare accomplishment. He finished fourth in a field of 24 for seven seats, behind council members Aryl Kaneshiro, Mason Chock and Ross Kagawa, but ahead of Councilman Arthur Brun.
Brun himself first took the stage as an outsider — and one who worked for a GMO seed company, at that — in 2014. He lost then, but was elected two years later.
Evslin, on the other hand, tasted victory — albeit in a primary — in his first time running for anything. As Evslin often remarked, 2018 is a busy year for him. He’s running for council; working on a master’s in public administration at the University of Southern California; continuing to run a Honolulu-based canoe manufacturing company of which he is co-owner, and moving from the yurt where he lives with his wife and young daughter to a real house in Lihue.
Oh, his wife, Sokchea, is also expecting the couple’s second child and her due date is Election Day, Nov. 6.
Tom Pickett, owner of the popular Kilauea Bakery and the man who brought two urns of coffee to poll workers early Saturday morning, observed Sunday that Evslin had broken out “because he deserved to.”
Evslin’s primary success seemed enhanced by the advantage he enjoys as a gifted writer on a variety of public policy topics. Sunday morning, though, the best Evslin could muster was that he was “humbled, honored, thankful and grateful.”
He ran on a platform focused heavily on the need for better and more effective planning and growth control, including mitigating Kauai’s growing traffic congestion problems and addressing a severe affordable housing shortage.
The primary was notable for its focus on bread-and-butter issues. Rapozo, for example, introduced a last-ditch “traffic plan,” but Kawakami had already occupied that ground with a focus on ways to manage growth more intelligently and use different technologies and strategies to address a glut of cars and shortage of road space.
Kauai’s primary was also notable for the near complete absence of an election controversy. There was scarcely any mention of the controversies that so divided the island over genetically modified crops and pesticides used with them a few years ago. Those controversies, it seems, have given way to issues and concerns that traditionally dominate elections: roads, solid waste, housing and property taxes.
Editor’s note: Luke Evslin is a former Civil Beat columnist.
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