Hawaii saw an encouraging uptick in the number of people who voted Tuesday compared to the last two midterm elections.
The 398,398 residents represented 53 percent of all registered voters — showing up in greater numbers than the 2010 and 2014 midterms, which drew 385,464 and 369,642 respectively, according to the state Office of Elections.
Still, the number of Hawaii voters Tuesday fell well short of the 456,064 who turned out for the 2008 presidential election in which native son Barack Obama won his first presidency. Some 436,683 Hawaii voters cast ballots when Obama ran for his second term in 2012.
Even with Obama on the ballot, Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation for five consecutive presidential elections, with only 43 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, according to a report by Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.
On Wednesday, at least one organization counted Hawaii dead last in the nation in terms of attracting eligible voters for Tuesday’s midterms.
The country overall saw 48.1 percent of eligible voters turn in ballots, according to the United States Election Project. The organization ranked Hawaii last, with only 39.4 percent of eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot.
On Tuesday there weren’t any competitive statewide races — and no way for Hawaii voters to show opposition or support for President Donald Trump, said Neal Milner, a retired political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
“There really wasn’t much in this election that was going to stimulate people to get enthusiastic,” Milner said. “This election was pretty much business as usual, which means low voter turnout. Voting is a habit, and not voting is a habit.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center counted a lower nationwide turnout for eligible voters than the United States Election Project — 44.5 percent, based on preliminary data.
But the Bipartisan Policy Center called Tuesday’s unofficial vote totals the highest nationwide turnout for a midterm election in at least four decades — or since 18-year-olds received the right to vote with the 26th Amendment in 1974.
“Many expected turnout to be high when both parties had successfully activated their bases and were fighting for every independent vote,” John Fortier, director of BPC’s Democracy Project, said in a statement. “My expectation is that once every vote is counted, we may see turnout of eligible voters hit 47 percent, which represents a 28 percent increase in turnout over the 2014 election cycle.”
Locally, Todd Belt, a political science professor at UH-Hilo, agreed with Milner that Tuesday offered “few exciting races” to attract island voters.
With Gov. David Ige, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case all winning in runaways, there was little drama to bring out voters on a statewide level, Belt said.
“Certainly we had that in ’08 with favored son Barack Obama running,” Belt said.
Tuesday’s election also showed a continuing trend of people voting early — despite being allowed to both register and vote on the same day at all 235 precincts across the islands.
In 2016’s presidential election, more people — 234,336 — voted by absentee ballot, representing 31 percent of all registered voters, than the 203,328 people — or 27 percent — voting at their precincts.
For Tuesday’s midterms, 223,531 people — or 29.5 percent of registered voters — voted by absentee ballot. At the same time, 174,867 voters — or 23 percent — voted at precincts, according to the state Office of Elections.
“Despite reducing more and more barriers to vote, such as same-day registration, it hasn’t done much to encourage turnout,” said Colin Moore, a UH associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at UH. “That’s not going to save us. Making voting more convenient doesn’t dramatically yield much at all to increase overall voter turnout. It just makes it easier for people to vote who already vote.”
More than 2,000 people registered — and voted — on the same day during the primary election. Because the registrations are conducted by each county, it will take several weeks to know how many people registered on Tuesday, said Nedielyn Beuno, voter services section head of the state Office of Elections.
While Democrats nationally talked about health care and Trump emphasized illegal immigration, “those issues didn’t separate the candidates we had for high-profile offices,” Belt said.
“Whether for or against Donald Trump, I don’t think anyone was more motivated here,” Belt said. “If they’re going to be motivated here, we’ve got to get some competitive elections. The Republicans have to get a deeper bench and start fielding more competitive candidates.”
Moore did see some anecdotal signs of hope at his polling site at the University Lab School in Manoa, where young, first-time voters were registering and voting on the same day.
“I salute them. It’s terrific,” Moore said. “That was really heartening.”
When he talks to his UH students about the need to vote, Moore said he tells them they need to exercise their voting power to get politicians’ attention.
“Politicians respond to people who are voters,” Moore said. “The way to get them to care is to vote.”
BY THE NUMBERS
>> 2018 midterm election: 398,398 votes cast Tuesday
>> 2016’s presidential election: 437,664 votes cast
>> 2014’s midterm election: 369,642 votes cast
>> 2012’s presidential election: 436,683 votes cast
>> 2010’s midterm election: 385,464 votes cast
>> 2008’s presidential election: 456,064 votes cast
Source: State Office of Elections