Hawaii’s voter turnout in the 2022 general election failed to live up to the promise that a switch to an all-mail voting process seemed to bring two years ago, the first year that most ballots could just be dropped in a mail box.

As of late Tuesday, 41% of registered Hawaii voters turned out for this election. That was out of more than 731,000 ballots mailed to active voters in advance of the general election. More results are expected sometime in the next 24 hours as each individual county tabulates the last of their votes, but historically, this round doesn’t include many more ballots.

Beyond encouraging people to register and vote earlier, Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said there’s not much else his office can do to keep the lines short.

“Voters just came on the last day,” he said. “There was no line yesterday.”

Joel Van Allen, 52, a university professor, said he was feeling distinctly lukewarm about his choices at the polls Tuesday.

“I’m feeling the ambivalence of a lot of people who don’t see a better side,” said Van Allen, who said he went to Honolulu Hale to cast his vote because he prefers to vote in person. “I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it.”

He described his enthusiasm level as a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, partially because of what he called the divisiveness of the political climate, with partisans “playing to one side or the other.”

Leading up to Tuesday, there were a few indicators that this year’s turnout would be lower than the 2020 general election, a year that saw a tough fight for the U.S. presidency. This year’s Aug. 13 primary also saw a drop from 2020, down to 39.6% from 51.2%. The turnout for the 2018 primary was 38.6%.

Nedielyn Bueno, who coordinates voter services for the Office of Elections, emphasized that every election has different factors that affect turnout — but she was still expecting a higher number for this year’s general, one that matched “maybe the 2020 primary,” she said.

Bueno believes that even more focus on voter education could help the problem, so that people know more about the “how” of voting.

“It’s not really our office to tell you ‘why,'” she said, leaving that to candidates and civic groups.

This year’s elections included contests for governor, all 76 seats of the Legislature, two county mayors and all four county councils, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, U.S. Congress, and charter amendment questions. A number of races were decided in the primary and residents often complain one reason they don’t vote is because Democrats overwhelmingly dominate the races, especially after the primary.

overhead view of the senate chamber, where volunteers and officials are tabulating the ballots
Officials and volunteers count the ballots in the Senate chamber. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii’s turnout wasn’t always this low; voter participation in the general election eclipsed 93% after statehood in 1959.

In those first elections, voters rebuked the once-strong Republican party of Hawaii’s territorial days, which – according to George Cooper and Gavan Daws in their landmark 1985 book Land and Power in Hawaii – many people saw as being too cozy with corporations like the “Big Five” plantation companies. 

Democrats have been the dominant party ever since, and voter participation has steadily declined to one of the lowest rates in the country. In 2020, Hawaii was ranked third from the bottom on the M.I.T. Election Data & Science Lab’s measure of turnout based on eligible voters.

Recent efforts to increase Hawaii’s turnout have mostly focused on making it easier to vote. 

In 2019, Hawaii implemented an all mail-in ballot system; in 2021, the state incorporated voter registration into applications for driver’s licenses and state IDs courtesy of a bill introduced by Sen. Chris Lee

Earlier this year, a bill introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads to use ranked-choice voting for certain special elections was passed as law. It remains to be seen how this experiment with structural change will impact voter turnout. 

Civil Beat reporter Kirstin Downey contributed to this report.

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