After casting her ballots for years at Pauoa Elementary School, Pearl Johnson will join hundreds of voters across the islands trying to figure out where her polling place has moved for next month’s primary election.
"I think it’s Kawananakoa Middle School," Johnson said, "but I’m not even sure of that."
TO FIND YOUR POLLING SITE
>> Call 211 or your county clerk office of the Office of Elections at 453-VOTE (8683).
And Johnson is the president of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii.
Election officials have closed 97 out of 339 polling places around the state for this year’s elections, citing staffing shortages and budget cuts.
That leaves only 242 poll-ing sites: 137 on Oahu, 40 in Maui County, 19 on the Big Island and 17 in Kauai County. Oahu lost the most sites, at 75.
"The decision had to be done," said Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the state Office of Elections. "It was obvious with all of the issues that we didn’t have the ability to actually manage all 339."
Hawaii already has one of the worst voter turnout rates in the nation, with only 42.2 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the last presidential midterm primary election in 2006.
So Johnson worries that the turnout will be even worse for the Sept. 18 primary with people like her wondering where they are supposed to vote.
The Office of Elections mailed yellow cards to registered voters with the locations of their polling places, Quidilla pointed out. Voters also can get their polling site locations by calling 211, or their county clerk offices of the Office of Elections at 453-VOTE (8683).
Or they can find their polling site by typing their name and address on the Office of Elections website at hawaii.gov/elections.
But at the age of 75, Johnson worries about the online skills of Hawaii’s most loyal voters, senior citizens like herself.
"Older people will really have a hard time doing that," she said. "I know they sent me one of those yellow cards, but I have no idea where I put it."
At the same time, the number of people voting with absentee, mail-in ballots and in early walk-in voting is increasing both in Hawaii and around the country, said Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii political science professor.
"Voting is a habit," Milner said. "If you’re creating a situation in which the habit has to change or has to be broken, that might be a red flag leading to a lower voter turnout. It’s not that people are being forced to travel 15 miles in a snowstorm, but people do get used to voting in a certain way. … But early walk-in and absentee voting might offset that. So on one side of the equation, you may have created an obstacle (by eliminating polling places), and on the other side you have a process that’s becoming more accessible, which makes it easier to vote."
Throw highly competitive races for governor, lieutenant governor, Honolulu mayor and other offices into the mix, and Milner is not sure what kind of turnout to expect on Sept. 18.
"It is looking like a competitive primary," he said. "In Hawaii we have more of the incentives for a higher voter turnout."
Former Election Chief Kevin Cronin proposed cutting back on the number of polling places following the 2008 elections because of expected budget and staffing cuts, Quidilla said.
"Subsequently, the (Legislature) did provide funding," Quidilla said. "But even with the funding, it is still a management issue. We just didn’t have the people on board to assist with all of these polling places."
Johnson understands why election officials eliminated nearly 100 polling places around the state, but it still causes her worry.
"Voter turnout is already so low," she said. "I’m worried this will just make it lower, and I am sorry to hear about that."