With less than a week to go before the primary, Hawaii voters had returned about 186,000 ballots out of more than 730,000 that were sent out statewide. 

This translates to an overall rate of about 25.5% returned, with Oahu and the Big Island so far leading the turnout at a little over 26% of ballots having been returned by Tuesday, four days before the primary.

Hawaii instituted an all mail-in voting system in 2019 — though people can still vote in person at a limited number of voter service centers — and the state’s dismal turnout rate saw a notable boost in 2020.

It remains to be seen whether turnout will remain high this year, but so far it’s clear that even without pandemic-induced social restrictions, voters are keen to submit their ballots through the mail.

Marcelle Mau works in the state’s ballot counting center at the State Capitol. So far about 186,000 ballots have been returned. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In the City and County of Honolulu, for example, over 129,000 voters have chosen to submit mail-in ballots, while fewer than 1,100 chose to vote in person at one of Oahu’s voter service centers. 

This rate – of about 99% of voters choosing to vote by mail – also occurred in neighbor island counties, according to their most recent counts. 

Before Hawaii’s elections became all mail, early voting rates were significantly lower. Four days before the primary in 2018, about 112,000 voters had turned in their ballots. Now, Oahu on its own surpasses that.

Honolulu appears to have slightly lower turnout now than it did in 2020 — about 26% of the ballots are in compared to about 30% last primary election.  

Honolulu was the only county that provided historic figures. 

Many factors affect election turnout as well as the timing of when voters turn in their ballots, said Big Island County Clerk Jon Henricks. “I don’t know if I’d want to put it on the voters.”

Ballots arrive at one of four counting centers that have a combined staff of between 300 and 400 volunteers statewide.

The volunteers processed between 30,000 and 40,000 ballots on the first day of counting last week, according to Aulii Tenn, who works in counting center operations for the state elections office. But the flow has trickled since then, Elections Chief Scott Nago said.

The ballots are processed in a room on the third floor of the State Capitol building. On Tuesday, several dozen volunteers sat at white folding tables to first sort mail envelopes by district before removing the ballots from the mail envelopes.

Once that’s finished, the volunteers separate the ballots from secrecy sleeves included in the ballot package. The process is set up so that the volunteers who see names on the mail envelopes can’t see how a person voted.

The ballots are then shuttled underground to the Senate chamber where counting machines and terminals sit on rows of desks.

2022 primary election staff move ballots in sealed rolling caged storage containers to be sorted then counted at the Capitol.
State elections workers move ballots in secure storage containers to be sorted then counted at the State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii’s mail voting law allows the state to start processing and counting ballots prior to election day as long as results are not tabulated and released until after polls have closed. Because of a law passed last year, officials now have 18 days leading up to the primary election to process ballots.

Results will be released Saturday in three separate reports after the polls close. The first report will include mail-in ballots received before Saturday — which was about 90% of votes cast in 2020, according to state election officials. The next two reports will be released later that night and possibly into the next morning, depending on how quickly counties are able to navigate the many thousands of ballots. 

Once these totals are in, individual counties vary in how they decide which candidates will move on to the general. State law mandates an automatic recount if the difference is less than 100 votes or less than 0.25% of the total votes cast in that race, whichever is greater. 

Kauai County had collected 7,631 ballots as of Monday, with 120 of that coming in-person, said Elections Administrator Lyndon Yoshioka.

Honolulu County had collected 130,795 ballots as of Monday, with 1,077 of that coming in-person.

Hawaii County had collected 29,561 ballots as of Tuesday, with 298 coming in-person as of Monday, according to Henricks.

Maui County had collected 18,025 ballots as of Monday, according to County Clerk Kathy Kaohu.

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.

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