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Voter Turnout: Mail-in balloting helps Hawaii crush voting records

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Volunteers Elise Yamamoto, left, and Barbara Harada removed vote-by-mail 
ballots from sleeves at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Saturday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Volunteers Elise Yamamoto, left, and Barbara Harada removed vote-by-mail ballots from sleeves at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Saturday.

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Voters continued to register and cast their ballots in person midday Saturday at Honolulu Hale.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Voters continued to register and cast their ballots in person midday Saturday at Honolulu Hale.

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Volunteer Levi Viloria collected deposited ballots dropped off on Saturday at Honolulu Hale.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Volunteer Levi Viloria collected deposited ballots dropped off on Saturday at Honolulu Hale.

Skeptics of Hawaii’s first large-scale effort at mail-in voting were proven wrong when island voters Saturday night 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.

PHOTOS: Hawaii voters decide in Hawaii’s primary election

“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 into 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 on Saturday 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.

Given the volume of votes for the primary election, Tenika Wentworth, 24, of Moiliili, and her boyfriend, Luis Repalda, 30, thought that more votes might even be cast in November’s general election that will decide America’s next president — especially if elections officials add more sites around the state for voters to drop off their mail-in ballots.

“This is pretty convenient,” Repalda said after the couple deposited their mail-in ballots at Honolulu Hale. “It’s just drop and go. … If you care about your future, it’s important to vote.”

Others filled out their mail-in ballots and dropped them off to ensure they were counted, as Sam Schank, 63, of Nuuanu, did at Honolulu Hale on Saturday.

But he still missed the old days of voting in person on election day at his old polling site, Nuuanu Elementary School, one of 235 former voting sites across the state.

“I prefer to go to the polling station,” Schank said. “You get a sense of community. You get to see the people who volunteer.”

There were also 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. “Despite the purposeful spin, there’s no evidence. There’s never been any significant fraud of any kind at all. It’s another one of those social media conspiracy theories. That doesn’t mean a lot of people don’t believe it.”

Moore said, “There haven’t been any studies that indicate serious concerns with mail-in ballots. That said, no system is 100% secure.”

Many Oahu voters, such as Jennifer Huppert, 52, of McCully, appreciated having her ballot in hand in the days leading up to Saturday’s primary election so she could study her options.

Asked why she waited until the last day to make her vote count, Huppert said, “I didn’t do my research ahead of time. … Especially now, with the pandemic, it’s just so convenient.”

Huppert joined other voters in expressing appreciation for the rise in voter interest that has accompanied the new emphasis on mail-in ballots.

“A better turnout will increase more informed voting,” she said.

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