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?
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.
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.
Source: Hawaii Office of Elections records
There’s evidence that Saturdays can put a chill on other elections, not just a statewide primary.
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.
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.”
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.
Source: Hawaii Office of Elections records