Updated 11:54 a.m. 

Even before the polls officially close, more voters are casting ballots in Hawaii’s first all-mail election than they have in decades.

Hawaii elections officials had 346,000 ballots in hand as of Friday.

Updated: About noon Sunday, elections officials reported over 406,00 voters cast ballots.

On Saturday, a line of cars waited at a drop box in front of Honolulu Hale, their drivers depositing ballots in the box. A final report on election results Sunday included about 18,000 ballots on Oahu that needed to be verified overnight.

City & County of Honolulu election officials collect ballots for drive-thru drop-offs outside the Honolulu Hale in Honolulu, HI, Saturday, August 8, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
On Saturday, drivers lined up to drop off their ballots at a deposit box at Honolulu Hale. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

The last time voting topped 300,000 ballots was in 1994, when 309,000 people cast ballots. Turnout was over 60% because the state had several hundred thousand fewer registered voters that year and turnout is a function of the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots.

In 2020, there are 795,000 registered voters.

This year turnout for the state was at about 51.1%. It’s the highest turnout in Hawaii since 1996, when about 51% of registered voters cast ballots.

That means Hawaii surpassed turnout in other mail-voting states including Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which all saw around 43% of registered voters cast ballots this year.

That also means turnout is about 16% higher than it was in 2016, a low point in Hawaii’s voter history when just 34.8% of voters cast ballots.

Proponents of an all-mail voting system have long called for Hawaii to make the switch because other mail-voting states, like Oregon, see some of the highest rates of voting in the U.S. The ease with which voters can cast ballots was also seen as a benefit.

Elections officials in Hawaii supported the change to mail-in ballots because of cost savings, including the cost of numerous workers to staff the polls.

On the surface, mail voting appears to have boosted turnout, but other factors are driving more people to vote this year.

The coronavirus has exposed deep-rooted flaws in government and Hawaii’s political structure. The pandemic has left thousands unemployed, and a recent poll found Hawaii residents are not satisfied with plans to reopen tourism.

Before cases began picking up in the last several weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the U.S., bringing with it a national reckoning for police departments. Here in Hawaii, it spurred action by the Legislature to remove an exemption that hid police disciplinary records from the public eye.

Another factor could be the Native Hawaiian-led movements in 2019, especially the opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope planned to be built on Mauna Kea.

The movement led to a new wave of activism in the state, and opposition to other projects in Waimanalo and Kahuku. It also gave rise to a new political party, and spurred more Hawaiians to run for office this year.

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