UPDATED 8/13/12 10:30 a.m.
Voter turnout for Saturday’s primary election didn’t pick up much from the last time there was a presidential campaign underway, despite a hot Honolulu mayor’s race and a historic campaign for the open U.S. Senate seat.
With figures finalized early Sunday morning, 42.3 percent of registered voters had cast primary ballots. That means that of the 688,000 people registered for the primary, less than 291,000 ended up voting.
That’s better than the 2008 primary, when 36.9 percent of registered voters participated in the election. But it’s down slightly from two years ago when 42.8 percent of voters cast ballots in a race that included a fight for governor as well as competitive congressional races.
In this year’s primary, Democrats represented 34 percent of registered voters who cast ballots, while Republicans produced a turnout of 7 percent.
Absentee voting was strong, with about half of all voters — 142,414 — casting absentee ballots, according to Hawaii’s Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago.
Early returns didn’t include numbers from Hawaii County precincts. Big Island polling places had opened late on Saturday, prompting Gov. Neil Abercrombie to extend precinct hours. Final numbers from Hawaii County clerk Jamae Kawauchi didn’t come in until 11 p.m.
Both Nago and state elections spokesman Rex Quidilla refused to speculate how the Big Island primary hiccups will affect election results.
“We don’t have enough information yet to know that kind of stuff,” said Nago. “We have to go out and meet with them [Hawaii County elections officials]. We have to debrief after the election and sort things out.”
It was clear that Nago and Quidilla were frustrated with Kawauchi’s limited communication — something that had already held up pre-primary voter preparation efforts. Nago anticipated that county clerks would try and “figure things out” starting Monday.
Nago wouldn’t comment Saturday night on this year’s voter turnout.
Civil Beat on Friday reported that, while the number of early walk-in voters was down by about a third from 2010, the number of mail-in voters increased by an average of 40 percent.
Hawaii County experienced the most marked surge in mail-in ballots, from about 6,500 in 2010 to an estimated 14,000 this year.
Hawaii is near the bottom when it comes to voter turnout. Civil Beat has covered Hawaii’s decline in turnout in its “Hawaii’s Vanishing Voter” special report.
The series found that various factors contribute to the dearth in turnout, including the lack of competition among candidates, strict voter registration policies and, perhaps most significantly, demographics.
Hawaii’s Office of Elections measures voter turnout as the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots.
A record 93 percent of registered Hawaii voters went to the polls in 1960’s general election, according to statistics generated by the state elections office. That year marked the first time voters elected state officials and participated in a U.S. presidential election.
That ratio dropped over the years. In 2010, a gubernatorial year, only 56 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the general election.
Voter turnout has generally been even lower for primary elections. About 42.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2010 primary, only two percent more than 2002’s record low for a gubernatorial primary year. That was about 36 percent of all Hawaii residents eligible to vote, whether or not they were registered.
The low primary turnout could also be because the elections always fall on Saturdays — the result of a 1970s law that was intended to urge more voters to cast their ballots. Hawaii is the only state to hold Saturday primaries.
In 2008 — when President Barack Obama first ran for president — just 36.9 percent of registered voters statewide participated in the primary. But Civil Beat has reported that general elections turnout during presidential years, such as this one, is higher than that for primary elections. That’s likely because parties nominate their choice for president in nominating conventions well before the primary.
Sixty-six percent of registered Hawaii voters cast their ballots in the 2008 general election.