Voter turnout was way up for Hawaii’s first all-mail primary election but some areas that historically have low voter turnout are still lagging behind, an analysis of state elections office records shows.

While all voting districts experienced increased turnout this election, certain areas like the Waianae Coast and parts of Maui saw less of an increase in the number of voters casting ballots than areas that have traditionally seen high rates of voter participation, like East Oahu.

Above average turnout in some areas also appears to be due to competitive races in those districts, records show.  

Kakaako resident Saidah Hatchett places her vote by mail envelope/ballot into a official ballot drop box located at Honolulu Hale. July 22, 2020.
Voting turnout is way up this election, but some areas still lag behind others. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still, mail voting has fulfilled the hopes of many who saw it as a way to help Hawaii’s ailing voter turnout, which has steadily declined since statehood. 

Civil Beat analyzed state elections office voting tallies from this year’s primary and from 2016, the last similar election when the Honolulu mayor’s race was on the ballot.

Turnout this year was about 47.8% in the primary, the best Hawaii has seen in the last two decades. It also beat other vote-by-mail states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon, which tend to have some of the highest voter turnouts in the country.

Across Hawaii’s 51 House districts, turnout increased an average 15% over the 2016 primary election. But the Waianae Coast and parts of central Maui, which traditionally have lower voter turnout, only saw an increase of about 8% to 12%.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s top voting districts fared even better than average. House Districts 17 and 18, which cover a chunk of Oahu that stretches from Aina Haina to Hawaii Kai, saw increases between 18% and 19%.

In the Democratic race for District 36 representing Mililani, Trish La Chica and former state representative Marilyn Lee drew twice as many votes compared to the same race in 2016.

This year, La Chica and Lee got about 7,100 votes between them compared to the approximately 3,400 votes Lee and her challenger Zuri Aki got in 2016.

District 36 also had the greatest increase in voters since 2016 at 21.4%.

And on Maui, one of the districts that saw a big increase between 2016 and 2020 is also one of the districts that is always at the bottom for voter turnout.

District 10, which covers Lahaina, saw 19% more voters cast ballots in 2020 compared to 2016. That puts the district at 7th in terms of growth.

Low turnout in the area has been blamed on Maui’s large number of vacation rentals. The area is famous for high-priced rentals that stay empty most of the year.

There were three candidates for Maui voters to choose from this election, which Dick Mayer, a retired Maui College professor, credits for the apparent increase in turnout.

On Oahu, districts representing Waimanalo and Kailua (District 51) and Kaneohe to Waiahole (District 48) also saw a big increase in voter turnout in the primary, likely due to competitive Democratic primary races.

The three districts stretching from Kahala to Hawaii Kai, which tend to top the list for voter turnout each election, saw increases this year. In House Districts 17, 18 and 19 between 18% and 19.5% more voters cast ballots than in 2016. 

Reps. Gene Ward and Bert Kobayashi advanced to the Nov. 3 general election in uncontested races. And Rep. Mark Hashem easily defeated his opponent, Tommy Driskill, with 68% of the vote.

Civic Engagement Could Boost Turnout

House District 44, which covers parts of Maili, Waianae and Makaha, is one of those that lag behind at the ballot box each year.

It ranked 45th in voter turnout in the 2020 primary and had a smaller increase in voting with about 13% over 2016.

Being discouraged by election results and not having competitive races may be just some of the reasons for low turnout, according to Calvin Endo, a neighborhood board member and the parent and community representative for Waianae High School.

Colleen Hanabusa, a Waianae native, won the most votes on Oahu’s Leeward Coast, but came in third in the Honolulu mayoral race behind Keith Amemiya and Rick Blangiardi.

And while there may still be some apathy among the electorate, Endo is encouraged by seeing more civic engagement over the last several years. While working with the parent-teacher association at Waianae High School, Endo said he’s seen more parents come to meetings to voice their concerns.

Endo also serves on the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board, where he’s also seen more people showing up, particularly for meetings about planned construction in the community and during elections when residents want to learn about candidates.

“More and more, I think they’re beginning to realize they need to be involved, but it’s taking a little bit of time,” Endo said.

Increased civic engagement in Waianae may lead to greater voter turnout. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Like Waianae, House Districts 8 and 9 covering Wailuku, Maui’s rural northwest, Kahului and central Maui, have consistently low voter turnout and also saw some of the lowest increases this year, at 9% and 8% respectively. The race for District 9 was one of 28 House races with no competitive primaries, with incumbent Rep. Justin Woodson and Aloha Aina challenger J. Kahala Chrupalyk advancing to the November general election.

“There’s just one candidate, there aren’t any get out the vote kind of things,” said Mayer, the retired Maui college professor. 

The changing base of voters in Wailuku and Kahului could also mean slower growth in turnout. Mayer said that voters who are getting older, dying and moving affect the area’s voting demographics.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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