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Last-minute surge of isle voters flooded election sites

In a last rush to have their opinion count, hundreds of voters showed up just before the 7 p.m. scheduled close of Hawaii voting centers across every county on Election Day, delaying the release of results for more than four hours.

The surge of last-minute voters was unprecedented in modern island election history and was part of a record turnout that saw 579,165 ballots cast, the most ever by far.

Out of 832,466 registered voters — another record — the number of ballots cast represented 69.6% of registered voters.

Voters who stood in lines that wrapped around the back of Honolulu Hale and Kapolei Hale all day long had a long and varied list of reasons for showing up in person on Election Day.

Some needed to register, others prefer the tradition of pulling a curtain and voting in person — especially on Election Day. Many said they had not received their mail-in ballots, while others were concerned about placing their signed ballots in the mail and risk getting them lost.

Voters had weeks, in many cases, to return their ballots by mail in what was billed as Hawaii’s first all-mail-in general election.

But for those on Oahu who didn’t want to or couldn’t use their mail-in ballot, they were allowed to register and vote at either Honolulu Hale or Kapolei Hale in the days leading up to Tuesday’s election.

While Hawaii’s first large-scale effort at mail-in ballots went smoothly during August’s primary election, 28,742 voters across the state still preferred to vote in person in Tuesday’s general election, or 3.5% of registered voters.

Of those, 1,028 people waited until the last day to register to vote at Honolulu Hale and another 777 registered at Kapolei Hale, Oahu’s two voter service centers that helped replace the old-school 235 previous polling sites across all islands.

A total of 4,520 Oahu voters cast ballots in person at both locations on Election Day.

“Hundreds of people were in line,” said Rex Quidilla, the city’s elections administrator.

Following August’s record-setting numbers for a primary election, Quidilla said Oahu elections officials felt ready to accommodate even higher numbers on Tuesday.

“We were prepared and well provisioned and had all the voting machines we needed,” he said. “What we saw, though, was a lot of people decide to vote on Election Day. A lot of people had (mail-in) ballots but voted in person.”

Mail-in voting again proved popular in the general election, with 550,423 votes cast across the state via mail-in ballots, representing 66.1% of all registered voters.

So political analyst Neal Milner called the turnout of 4,520 people who chose to show up in person and line up to vote on Election Day just on Oahu “astounding.”

“Something stimulated these people,” Milner said. “As time went on they decided it was important to vote. These people were willing to stand in line for 30 minutes to three-and- a-half hours.”

So many island voters waited to vote across the state that no county’s voter service center was able to close on time. Hawaii law requires that any voter — even those who need to register — must be allowed to vote if they are in line before the scheduled close of polls.

County officials are responsible for running elections on their islands. And state election officials were planning to release the first results shortly after all voting sites closed, which they anticipated would be shortly after 7 p.m.

But hundreds of people remained in line across all counties, said Nedielyn Bueno, spokeswoman for the state Office of Elections. And all counties continued to see people registering to vote in the final moments of Election Day.

“All were open after 7 p.m.” Bueno said.

The delays in closing voter service centers meant that state officials could not issue the first election results until well after 11 p.m.

Milner, the political analyst, is a frequent critic of Hawaii elections officials but did not place any blame for the unprecedented surge of last-minute voters.

“I can’t be too critical about it,” he said. “This is a learning process. The bright spot, certainly in Hawaii, is that people wanted to get out and vote and were willing to do it in person. We clearly got people who normally don’t vote.”

In a state that often lagged the country in voter turnout, the last big turnout was in 2008 when native son Barack Obama successfully won his first presidential term. Island voters cast 456,064 ballots in that year’s general election. Only one of Hawaii’s primary elections ever saw more than 300,000 votes.

This year, the record number of votes appeared to be driven by a variety of factors, including the U.S. presidential race, concerns about the economy, COVID-19, the selection of Honolulu’s new mayor and the ease of mail-in voting.

Many voters who stood in line during the day at Honolulu Hale on Tuesday, such as Deborah Norden, 53, of Kahala, said they prefer the tradition of voting in person on Election Day, instead of mailing in a ballot.

“I prefer voting in person,” Norden told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Hours later, hundreds of people continued to line up.

Milner likes to say that voting is a habit and not voting is a habit.

So it’ll be up to the future to determine whether Tuesday’s record-setting voter turnout was an anomaly driven by a confluence of interests and motivations.

With 3.5% of all registered voters still choosing to wait in line to vote in person — especially at the last minute — Milner said, “that suggests there’s something going on there that we don’t understand.”

BY THE NUMBERS

>> 579,165: Total votes cast statewide, a record (69.6% of registered voters).

>> 550,423: Mail-in ballots cast (66.1% of registerd voters).

>> 28,742: Total in-person voters (3.5% of registered voters).

>> 1,028: Oahu voters who registered to vote on Election Day at Honolulu Hale

>> 777: Oahu voters who registered to vote on Election Day at Kapolei Hale

>> 4,520: People who voted in person on Election Day at Honolulu Hale and Kapolei Hale

Source: Honolulu Office of Elections

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