What Does Hawaii’s Primary Turnout Mean For Future Elections? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and co-authored the UH PPC survey report referenced here.

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The increase in Hawaii’s August 2020 voter turnout was extraordinary. What explains it?

The usual explanations for higher turnout don’t apply. There were no controversial statewide or congressional elections.  Neither Democratic nor Republican voters seemed highly mobilized the way they were in, say, the April Wisconsin primary where turnout went way up. Hawaii had no contested presidential primary. In fact, the state had no presidential primary at all.

So that leaves one obvious factor. The only thing that was clearly different was that for the first time the election was an all-mail ballot.

Not so fast. You can’t assume that the change in the ballot accounts for the increase because it is just one election and because mail-only balloting has not had anything like that dramatic an effect in other states.

So why the jump in turnout and will it last?

As social scientists, we’re skeptics by nature. Human behavior just doesn’t change very often – and when it does, it doesn’t tend to change quickly. For years, we’ve been asked if we thought that this was the year that turnout would go up. And for years, we’ve both responded that, no, we thought it was unlikely.

But this year, we were wrong.

We want to explain why this increase in turnout was so significant, offer a couple of theories for why it happened, and lay out a few scenarios for what this might mean in the future.

What Happened? Why Did 150,000 More People Become Voters?

There are high voter turnout states. There are low voter turnout states. And then there’s Hawaii. For years we’ve been the lowest in the nation. In the 2016 presidential election, we were about 8 percentage points lower than West Virginia, our closest competitor in the race to the bottom.

That is until the August primary when 406,425 people participated. We haven’t seen numbers like this in Hawaii since Bill Clinton was on the ballot. According to the Office of Elections, our total turnout when calculated as a percent of registered voters who cast ballots was 51% in August. That’s a 17 percentage point increase from 2016, the last primary in a presidential election year.

Another way to calculate voter turnout is by using statistical models to estimate how many eligible voters cast a ballot. This measure, called the voting eligible population, includes those who weren’t registered to vote, but met all the legal requirements for voting. This is a better method of getting at what we really care about: how many people who could vote, did vote.

If we calculate turnout in this way, Hawaii’s turnout was even more remarkable. According to the United States Election Project, Hawaii hit 40% in August, beating Colorado, traditionally a high turnout state, which saw only 37% of its eligible population cast a ballot.

Turnout also went up in every district across the state. According to data collected by Civil Beat, turnout in Mililani, Kailua and wealthy areas of East Oahu jumped as much as 20 percentage points. More modest increases of between 8 and 11 points occurred in parts of west and central Maui and in Kalihi. But even an 8 percentage point increase is as high as has been observed in any state with the adoption of mail-in voting.

Voter Service Center worker Brooke Webb disinfects the official ballot collection box outside Honolulu Hale. August 6, 2020
Voter Service Center worker Brooke Webb disinfects the official ballot collection box outside Honolulu Hale days before the primary. Ballot drop boxes in addition to a vote-by-mail system made voting even more convenient this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Now, some critics may argue that this still isn’t that high. That may be true, but no state has ever seen an increase like this after the introduction of mail-in ballots.

Given the importance of all-mail voting, there has been surprisingly limited research on how much it boosts turnout. One recent working paper from Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica and colleagues estimates that the change to all-mail voting in Colorado increased turnout by 9.4 percentage points. A separate study by Yale researchers found that the change to all-mail voting increased turnout by 2 to 4 percentage points in Washington state. An older study conducted to measure Oregon’s change to all-mail voting showed the greatest increase, ranging from 8.4 percentage points to 15.5, but the effect faded after the first three elections.

Perhaps more interesting is where these effects were observed. The Stanford paper found turnout jumped by as much as 16.6 percentage points for voters born after 1980, and also observed increases in turnout for voters with less wealth, education, likely blue-collar voters. Similar effects were observed in the study of Washington state.

So, we know that Hawaii’s voter turnout went up, and we know it went up very high relative to existing knowledge about mail-in ballots and relative to 2020 state primaries. We also know that it followed the typical disparate turnout pattern through big jumps everywhere.

By the same token, Hawaii’s turnout may not remain a big deal. We know that for statistical reasons, common sense and experience in other states with all-mail voting there is no reason to assume that it is the beginning of an upward trend.

What Might This Mean For Hawaii Politics? Two Scenarios

Scenario 1: the high turnout is a short-term novelty effect. That is what happened in Oregon when it went all-mail.  After a few elections, that state’s turnout went down, returning pretty close to the pre-mail norm.

Scenario 2: Hawaii’s increase is the start of a long-term rise in turnout that will reverse the curve.

Maybe. On the one hand, people who are voters tend to stay voters. It’s a step toward a more durable link to the world of politics. So, 150,000 voters who used to avoid green vegetables tried them and liked them enough to eat them again.

On the other hand, voting just once is not yet a habit. Surveys of non-voters show that they have all sorts of lingering reasons for not voting. Often non-voters are disinterested in politics and feel unattached. They may come from families of non-voters.

Well, Which Is It? How Will New Voters Lean?

Needless to say, these are compelling times. Nationally, interest in the 2020 presidential race is way up among both Democratic and Republican voters. Much of it seems to be driven by fear and loathing of the other side, a negative party identification.

To give you a sense of just how much, a Pew Research Center survey shows that 83% of voters say that it really matters who wins the election. Compare that to the results in 2000, when the campaign was between George W. Bush and Al Gore and only 50% of voters thought it mattered.

Michael McDonald, the director of the United States Election Project, predicts that the 2020 presidential election may have the highest voter turnout since the election of 1908 — 66% compared to a little over 60% turnout in 2016.  That’s 12 million more voters than 2016.

Hawaii is hardly a player in presidential races — too small and too one-party. But politics generally have become more nationalized, so maybe people in this state have begun to be more politically conscious.

Recent events in Hawaii may have been compelling enough to overcome this non-voting habit enough to move non-voters to the habitual voter side. The Mauna Kea protests might be one. Perhaps the pandemic is another. The Black Lives Matter protests might also be a factor. And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic links people to politics in ways that seem too compelling for even the habituated non-voter to ignore.

‘We are closed’ sign on the window of Like Like Drive Inn, one of scores of COVID-19 related closures. September 22, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is linking people to politics in extraordinary ways. But will it push them to vote? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

What’s interesting and puzzling, though, is that over the past many years, compelling political events in Hawaii have turned out not to be so compelling as far as voter turnout was concerned. At times events dull the senses and make people want to forget about politics.

If Scenario 1 turns out to be accurate, the effect of these supposedly compelling events won’t last. Hawaii will return to its normal, low turnout after the 2020 election, once the excitement fades.

But if Scenario 2 turns out to be a better predictor, then whatever is compelling 150,000 more people to vote in Hawaii may have a more durable, long lasting impact.

Is It Just A Fluke?

But maybe the most important takeaway from all of this discussion is uncertainty and complexity. There really is no simple, definitive explanation for the sudden gigantic increase in turnout.

Given what we know about Hawaii and about turnout and mail ballots generally, Hawaii is a one off.  (One of us emailed a well-known election expert for his opinion, and he essentially said, “Wow. I have no idea.”)

It is also a one-off because it’s just one, a single election.

And finally, there is a broader question of political mobilization during the 2020 presidential campaign and its aftermath: protests, counter-protests, the threat of violence, passionate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and a president who fuels all of this.

As we have indicated, it is hard to assess how much the increase in voter turnout is related to the new political intensity.

At the same time there are equally sound reasons to be cautious about attributing the Hawaii August turnout to the mail ballot.

The November election turnout will give us more information, but even the two 2020 elections combined will only give us tentative answers to the turnout question.

It will take a few more elections before we can understand the significance, or non-significance, of the August 2020 turnout.

Read this next:

Campaign Corner: Why I Fear Losing The Right To Vote

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About the Authors

Colin Moore

Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and co-authored the UH PPC survey report referenced here.

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

One thing I found interesting is the increase in Republican voting was about as large as that in Democrat voting, about 40,000 each.Republicans:2020       72,197 – up 121%2018       32,610 Democrats:2020       288,975 – up 17%2018       247,932

KailuaBill · 3 years ago

What the professors are saying is that in future elections, there may or not be an uptick in voting.Like saying it may or not rain tomorrow.

Charles · 3 years ago

Aside from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause this is almost entirely a media discussion.  Endlessly talking heads on TV or editorials in the print medium show angst over voter turnout.  No one else does.  Political activists are interested only in turning out voters for their candidates.  Encouraging voters who have no knowledge of who they are voting for as is often the case in down ballot races, or to simply have a family member fill out their ballot for them to then sign and mail doesn't help anyone who is interested in better government. I think we should care a lot more that voters know who they are voting for and why and fix the problems that make challenging incumbents so difficult.

Tracyar · 3 years ago

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