Saturdays are consumed by a variety of activities — shopping, chores, family, recreation, sports, even just chilling out at home.

It’s understandable that one of the last things someone may want to do on Saturday is exercise their civic duty by visiting their local precinct to vote.

Yet, Hawaii is the only state to hold a primary election on Saturdays. Hawaii also consistently dwells at the bottom of voter-turnout rates among all states.

So, are Saturdays killing voter turnout?

A Clear Decline

Hawaii lawmakers decided in 1970 to hold primaries on Saturdays because they believed it would increase voter turnout. But the trend at least in recent years has been in the opposite direction.

Only 36.9 percent of registered voters voted in the 2008 primary, a year in which there was not a high-profile competition for governor but there was a spirited contest for Honolulu mayor — Mufi Hannemann was re-elected over Panos Prevedouros and Ann Kobayashi.


Voter turnout in the 2010 primary was just 42.8 percent.

(The earliest year for which election results are available on the state’s Office of Elections website is 1992.1)

Interest in that election was lukewarm, though it featured a bloody battle for governor between Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Hannemann, and the Honolulu mayor’s race between Peter Carlisle, Panos Prevedouros and Kirk Caldwell.

Both elections represent quite a drop from the 66 percent primary turnout in 1994, a year that featured a hot three-way contest for governor. That was the year Democrat Ben Cayetano bested Republican Pat Saiki and independent Frank Fasi.


Statewide Primary Election Results

Year Registered Turnout Pct
2010 684,481 292,838 42.78%
2008 667,647 246,299 36.89%
2006 655,741 276,693 42.20%
2004 626,120 248,731 39.73%
2002 667,679 274,517 41.12%
2000 629,162 250,848 39.87%
1998 582,558 291,069 49.96%
1996 531,892 275,548 51.81%
1994 468,739 309,700 66.07%
1992 432,723 251,576 58.14%

Source: Hawaii Office of Elections records

There’s evidence that Saturdays can put a chill on other elections, not just a statewide primary.

On Nov. 30, 2002 — a Saturday — Ed Case was elected to fill the remainder of the late Patsy Mink‘s congressional seat; the turnout was a dismal 13 percent.

Case was elected to the seat for a full term just five weeks later, on Jan. 4, 2003 — another Saturday; the turnout was 22 percent.

The 2012 Primary

Hawaii’s primary election next year will be Aug. 11, five weeks earlier than the primary that was held in 2010.

That’s because legislators passed a law in 2010 to comply with federal requirements that states mail absentee ballots to uniformed and overseas voters no later than 45 days prior to elections for federal offices.

Yet, Hawaii’s primary will still be held on a Saturday, though most states hold their primaries on a Tuesday.

Louisiana will hold a municipal primary on a Saturday — March 24. Tennessee will hold its primary on Thursday, Aug. 2.

Data on primaries and voter turnout is limited, said Sean Greene, research manager for the Pew Center on the States, Election Initiatives.

Broadly speaking, Greene said, primaries attract fewer voters than general elections. The reasons include that few voters are paying attention and that many primaries are not very competitive.

“On top of that, elections have become a lot more complex in recent years,” he said. “People can vote in a number of different ways, such as absentee or walk in. For us, the larger question is whether this affects turnout — how people vote and when. But we are hamstrung by a lack of reliable data.”

Primary Colors

There’s a couple of other things to think about when it comes to Saturday primaries.

First, election days are holidays for workers; even employers who work on election days must grant employees a couple of hours to go vote. But most people don’t work on Saturday.

Second, contrary to primaries elsewhere, Hawaii’s primary elections are — with the exception of a handful of big races — sometimes more important than general elections. Think of Abercrombie versus Hannemann in 2010, or Case versus Daniel Akaka in 2006. Most key legislative races also are decided in the primary.

Because voters can only pull one party’s ballot in the primary — something that is not the case in the general — most vote for Democrats. While voters are not required to register their party preference, most Hawaii voters still vote Democrat and have done so since statehood.

No coincidence. Hawaii politics has been dominated by one party since statehood.

Interestingly, the one time in recent memory that a Saturday election had a solid turnout — 54 percent — was on May 22, 2010, when Democrats Case and Colleen Hanabusa were bested by Republican Charles Djou. That was a special election to fill the congressional seat of Abercrombie, who had resigned to run for governor.

But that race, unlike the 2002-2003 contests that first sent Case to Congress with only a tiny voter turnout, preceded an election cycle, not followed it; the Case-Djou-Hanabusa race was arguably the most exciting and historical — Hawaii sent a Republican to Congress for the first time in 20 years.

Even if Hawaii decides to stick with Saturday primaries and special elections, at some point it might not matter that folks are busy with youth soccer and cruising Ala Moana Center.

That’s because of a promising trend in recent elections: More people are voting absentee — either by mailing in ballots or walking into early voting booths set up in places like Honolulu Hale.

Absentee Ballots as Percentage of Turnout

Year Primary Pct General Pct
2010 129,824 44.33% 163,277 42.35
2008 95,042 38.59% 175,526 38.49%
2006 102,349 36.99% 118,823 34.05%
2004 79,276 31.87% 133,782 30.99%
2002 69,544 25.33% 110,049 28.55%
2000 49,192 19.61% 73,070 19.69%
1998 46,982 16.14% 70,345 17.05%
1996 37,695 13.68% 56,532 15.27%
1994 38,863 12.55% 53,843 14.28%
1992 23,134 9.20% 40,539 10.59%

Source: Hawaii Office of Elections records

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