Voter turnout for the 2022 primary appears to have fallen back to the dismal rate before Hawaii implemented a vote-by-mail system that was aimed at boosting turnout.

State elections officials reported a statewide turnout of about 39.6% of Hawaii’s registered voters for Saturday’s primary election, which included a heated race for governor, a crowded field for lieutenant governor and most legislative seats in the state.

One U.S. senator, both Hawaii congressional seats, and council races in every county also were on Saturday’s primary ballot as well as the mayor’s job in Kauai and Maui Counties and a number of positions on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees.

About 336,000 people voted out of about 850,000 registered voters.

Voter turnout in Hawaii had been on the decline for the past few decades, a topic that’s inspired local media coverage and changes to state law to ease the voting process. 

This includes the 2019 law that made mail-in ballots universal, as opposed to requiring voters to request it explicitly. Early voting this year far surpassed early voting in 2018. 

Voter turnout increased in 2020 with the move to all-mail voting. Nearly 70% of voters cast ballots in the November general election that year which included the contest for president between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump at the top of the ballot.

But Saturday’s election saw a return to the apathetic days before it became easy to cast a ballot by mailing it in. A 33% turnout — if that number hold when final results are released — would be among the lowest in more than a decade.

In 2020, 51.2% of voters turned out for the primary and 38.6% voted in the 2018 primary.

View this graph on the elections office website. Hawaii Office of Elections

Scott Nago, Hawaii’s chief election officer, said that this cycle may have failed to live up to 2020’s surge because 2020 had more salient issues.

“You had Covid, you had government shutdowns, you had stay-at-home orders, you had mask mandates,” he said.

In the run-up to election day, it was clear that turnout would be lower than it was in 2020. Honolulu’s election division tweeted its ballot statistics daily, and by Thursday, the number returned was about three-quarters what it was the same time last primary cycle. 

The elections office had about 276,000 total ballots with most of the results in on Saturday.

All individual counties reflected low turnout. Honolulu County reported a 40% turnout rate, Hawaii County reported a 41% turnout, Kauai reported 38.5% and Maui reported 34.8%. 

Maui was the only county that had problems moving voters through the walk-in center on Saturday. Voters on Maui flocked to the only voter center in Wailuku and for a few hours in the afternoon had to wait in a long line. But elections officials said it was the only voter center to see a long wait and all others were flowing quickly.

There were only two in-person voting sites open on Oahu Saturday, one at Honolulu Hale and the other at Kapolei. But there were no long lines like those that materialized in the 2020 general election.

In Honolulu, a slow and steady stream of voters strolled or drove up to city hall on Saturday afternoon, delivering their ballots in person for the primary election. Some said they were voting today because they had procrastinated about sending in their ballots but others said they were doing so because they prefer in-person voting.

Voters who agreed to be interviewed skewed disproportionately Republican.

“I feel we need change here in the islands — somebody to look out for the everyday working people,” said Lee Staubo of Kailua, who said she was voting for BJ Penn for governor, citing her concerns about high gas prices, inflation, the Covid lockdowns and mask mandates.

Civil Beat reporter Kirstin Downey contributed to this report.

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