Concerns are growing over this month’s voter turnout as state elections officials continue to spread the word that there will be 97 fewer polling places across the islands for this year’s elections.
"Voting is a habit and where voters go to vote is a habit," said Barbara Kim Stanton, state director of AARP Hawaii that represents Hawaii’s largest bloc of voters, 150,000 people over the age of 50. "Anytime you close a polling place, that is a problem. So closing 97 will have a chilling effect on voters."
Earlier this year, elections officials at one point feared they would be incapable of staging the Sept. 18 primary because of staffing and budget cuts, said Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the state Office of Elections.
"The decision to consolidate polling places was done with resources we knew we had at the time," Quidilla said.
In June, the Office of Elections received a $250,000 legislative appropriation to pay for ballot transport and delivery services, office and election-day supplies, and communications. But by then, elections officials already had planned to reduce the number of polling places across the islands to 242 — closing more than one-fourth of the 339 voting sites that existed in 2008.
"With a skeleton crew, it would be close to impossible to hold an election with all 339 polling places," Quidilla said. "Early in the year, the office had to make a decision with what we knew and what we could manage. We did receive the necessary funding to carry out an election, but at the time the decision had already been made to move forward."
Out of 339 original polling places, 19 will be closed on the Big Island, three on Maui and 75 on Oahu.
That leaves 137 polling places on Oahu, 48 on the Big Island, 40 in Maui County and 17 in Kauai County.
The state has mailed yellow postcards letting registered voters know where to vote, Quidilla said.
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 eliminating 28 percent of the polling places leaves committed voters such as Army Sgt. 1st Class Les Carter worried that Hawaii’s turnout will be even lower this year.
"Too many Americans complain, but don’t do their part by voting for the best person to represent them," Carter said yesterday as he stood in his camouflage uniform. "People died for that right."
Carter’s pretty certain that his usual polling place near his home in Ewa will be closed on primary election day. And he isn’t sure where he put the yellow card he received in the mail from the state Office of Elections.
"I need to find out where I need to vote," Carter said. "My grandfather (Edwin Myles) is from Paincourtville, La., and he wasn’t allowed to vote. He wanted us kids to vote and we ain’t going to let him down."
Elections officials hope the reduced number of polling places is offset, at least partially, by the growing number of people voting by mail-in absentee ballot — or during the early, walk-in voting period, which began Friday and runs through Sept. 16.
In the past two decades, the percentage of Hawaii residents voting through mail-in and early voting has steadily increased with each election — from 9 percent in the 1992 primary election to 38.6 percent in 2008.
Beverly Roberts, a retiree who lives downtown, decided to vote by absentee ballot for the first time last week and found it much easier than standing in line on election day.
"It was fine, no problem," she said yesterday.
Yvonne Patcho and her four adult children all vote by absentee ballot, partly because Patcho works in town and can’t always make it home to Waianae to vote in time.
"It’s the convenience and the time," Patcho said. "Absentee voting is the best way."
But others embrace the idea of closing that little curtain on election day in a ritual shared by millions of other Americans.
"We all gotta do our part," said Lance Collado, 23, a Kapiolani Community College student. "If we all just sit around and don’t vote, nothing’s going to happen."
And even though Liz Cole, 27, will have to figure out the location of her new polling place since elections officials closed her old site, Waikiki Baptist Church, she’s ready to walk into the voting booth again on Sept. 18.
"It’s just the experience, to say, ‘Yea! I voted,’" she said.