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Storm threats push more to hit polls early

Amid mostly minor problems, damage from Iselle prevents 8,000 people on Hawaii island from voting

By Timothy Hurley & Gregg K. Kakesako

LAST UPDATED: 12:53 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2014

With storms threatening to disrupt Hawaii's primary election voting on Saturday, more people cast early ballots than voted on Election Day.

It was a first for Hawaii, officials said, as more than 160,000 people voted ahead of time, with absentee voting through mail and walk-in voting up at least 11 percent in Honolulu and an estimated 12 percent statewide. Only 123,897 people voted on Saturday.

Honolulu County Clerk Bernice Mau said the pre-election day turnout reflects the growing popularity of absentee voting, but it may have also had to do with Tropical Storm Iselle, which was bearing down on Hawaii last week with hurricane-force wind and rain before weakening.

"I was checking the walk-in line, and some people said they had rushed down here because of the hurricane," Mau said.

The number of people voting absentee before Election Day continues to rise with every election cycle. About 41 percent of the votes cast in the 2010 primary were absentee and 44 percent in the 2012 primary.

This year's primary election featured several high-profile races, including Democratic contests for governor, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House seat covering urban Honolulu.

There were a few problems at polling places, with jammed voting machines and other issues, but otherwise there were no reports of major problems, said Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the state Office of Elections.

On Hawaii island 8,000 registered voters at two polling places did not vote Saturday after state officials postponed balloting because of storm-related damage to roadways that left some Puna communities cut off.

But state Sen. Russell Ruderman, a midterm Democrat who represents Puna and Kau, said more than two polling places experienced problems Saturday. As many as a couple hundred voters in Puna had trouble traveling to the two other polling places because of fallen trees and other roadway problems, he said.

However, state Election Chief Scott Nago said his office checked with authorities who did a flyover of the region and determined the roads leading to the other polling places were free and clear.

The voters scheduled to cast their ballots at Hawaii Paradise Community Center and Keonepoko Elementary School will be sent absentee ballots, officials said, and any previous absentee and early walk-in votes from those precincts will be held back and counted with the rest of the absentee ballots.

By law, the entire process will have to be completed within 21 days, but Hawaii County Clerk Stewart Maeda vowed to complete the effort as soon as possible.

Elsewhere, minor problems occurred at a number of the state's 230 open polling places Saturday, but most were corrected soon after being reported, officials said.

Ballot-scanning machines reportedly jammed at Kahala Elementary School and in Honokaa on the Big Island, but a troubleshooter was sent out to reset the machines, officials said.

Quidilla estimated the scanner at Kahala was out of service for about 45 minutes. Ballots were kept in a sealed box until they could be scanned and counted.

Despite the problems, Quidilla commended elections officials and poll workers on the Big Island for coping with difficulties created by Iselle.

On Oahu, Mililani High School polling place chief Lim M. Wong said there were a few missing supplies when election volunteers arrived Saturday morning. But they made do, he said, and things proceeded smoothly despite having less space because half the cafeteria was used as a public shelter during the storm.

And most of the nearly two dozen voters standing in line at Washington Intermediate School and Manoa Elementary School said the storm didn't change their voting habits.

Rod Chamberlain, 60, said he had hoped to cast an early walk-in absentee ballot at Honolulu Hale, near where he works.

"I wasn't able to because other things like storm preparation," said Chamberlain, an educator.

Thomas Jackson said the precinct he chairs at University Laboratory School in Manoa typically sees about 500 walk-in voters for the primary election. As of 

4 p.m. Saturday, some 600 voters had already shown up, he said.

"For a primary it's heavy," Jackson said of the turnout as more people shuffled in to cast their vote. "I haven't seen it like this since Barack Obama ran the first time," he added, referring to the president's contentious 2008 primary battle against Hillary Clinton.

Jackson said he has been a volunteer at the precinct for about the past 16 years. Typically, a lot of University of Hawaii students vote there in the general election, but because it's summer virtually none appeared Saturday, he said.

In Central Maui, primary voters were trickling in more slowly than usual to Pomaikai Elementary School in Kahului.

"In the past this precinct has had one of the highest voter turnouts, and we usually have a line out the door before we open," said Stacey Moniz, precinct chairwoman, around noon Saturday. "Today our first voter didn't show up until 7:15, and we haven't had a line yet. It could be the weather. So we're telling people as they come in that we're grateful that they're voting today."

Nyles and Donelle Sakuma of Waikapu, who both teach, said they usually vote by absentee ballot.

"But we just ran out of time, so it's a good thing the weather held up," said Donelle Sakuma, who works at Pomaikai Elementary.

Early walk-in absentee voting ended Thursday.

Quidilla said 697,033 people were registered to vote in the primary, up slightly from the 684,481 registered in 2012.

The last Hawaii election affected by a major storm was the September 1992 primary -- just eight days after Hurricane Iniki stormed through the islands. Some polling sites on Kauai were in National Guard tents because the normal facilities were either being used as storm shelters or were unaccessible.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporters Nanea Kalani and Marcel Honor? contributed to this report.

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