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Hawaii voters crush turn-out records as mail-in balloting proves popular during pandemic

                                Primary election volunteers Elise Yamamoto, left, and Barbara Harada remove vote-by-mail ballots from sleeves at the Hawai’i Convention Center on Saturday.
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Primary election volunteers Elise Yamamoto, left, and Barbara Harada remove vote-by-mail ballots from sleeves at the Hawai’i Convention Center on Saturday.

Skeptics of Hawaii’s first large-scale effort at mail-in voting were proven wrong Saturday night as island voters destroyed all previous records for the number of ballots cast in a primary election.

Hawaii voters crushed the record for the number of votes cast in a primary election — 380,152, shattering the previous statehood-era best of 309,700 primary votes set in 1994.

Honolulu voters also set an Oahu record for votes cast in a primary election — 256,344. The previous Honolulu record for a primary election of 225,406 votes cast was recorded in 1994.

“I’m a skeptic and I’m surprised to the extent that the turnout has increased,” said retired University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner. “The elephant in the room is that we changed one thing that was pretty obvious: The fact that we went to an all-mail ballot.”

Colin Moore, a UH associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at UH, said he was “happy to be proven wrong, absolutely.”

“I’m surprised by the interest,” Moore said. “I didn’t predict this would happen. I really didn’t think there was a whole lot of interest in this primary. I thought people weren’t paying attention.”

There were several theories Saturday about the high volume of votes, especially the idea that voters had their mail-in ballots at home for a couple of weeks to consider their choices — while sequestered because of COVID-19.

If voters’ only option was to show up in person to vote amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections across the state and new crackdowns, “turnout would have been an absolute disaster,” Moore said. “People would have been scared to leave their homes.”

Still, a steady stream of voters showed up at Honolulu Hale Saturday before polls closed to either register and vote in person, or drop off mail-in ballots that were due by 7 p.m.

“The volume of people voting is mind-blowing,” said Rex Quidilla, administrator for the city’s office of elections.

The marquee races on Oahu were to pick Honolulu’s next mayor, prosecutor and a majority of council members.

Several voters at Honolulu Hale said they appreciated having time at home to study their mail-in ballots and to consider their voting options before having to finally decide by the time voting closed.

There were skeptics of mail-in voting, even among voters who dropped off their mail-in ballots in person at Honolulu Hale.

Suzanne Kariya-Ramos, 55, of Kakaako, brought her dog Kea to Honolulu Hale to drop off her mail-in ballot and another on behalf of her husband, Roland Ramos.

The process made Kariya-Ramos question whether one person in a large family could be filling out multiple ballots intended for multiple family members sharing the same home, though each ballot must be signed, with the signature matched to city records.

“More votes are coming in,” Kariya-Ramos said. “But that doesn’t mean more people necessarily voted. In a crowded house, one person could have done all the voting for 10 ballots.”

Scott Nago, Hawaii’s chief elections officer, said Saturday night: “We were not alerted to any voter fraud issues.”

Both Milner and Moore said there is no evidence around the country that mail-in voting has resulted in widespread voter fraud — despite claims on social media and in some political circles on the mainland.

“It’s nonsense, it’s nonsense,” Milner said.

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