HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the biggest stories of the 2020 primary election turns out to be not any particular race or candidate, but Hawaii’s voters.
A record number of ballots were cast in the primary, the first all mail-in election in Hawaii.
Onlookers said frustration in leadership, concern about the impacts of the pandemic and the ease of voting by mail are to thank for the increased energy and participation from voters.
That energy was on display at Honolulu Hale on Saturday night.
Minutes before 7 p.m., the cut-off for votes to be received, a handful of voters were spotted running to ballot boxes at Honolulu Hale to ensure their votes were counted.
Some were received just seconds to late, and elections officials said they would not be counted.
Even going into primary election day, it was clear the vote-by-mail model had worked to boost turnout.
The state Office of Elections said it received 380,000 ballots by Saturday morning. That tops the previous record for ballots cast set in 1994, and is about 100,000 more than the number of ballots cast in the last primary election in the islands.
On Oahu, elections officials had received 248,000 ballots by Friday night. Four years ago, by comparison, 169,000 Oahu voters participated in the primary election.
“Seeing so many people wanting to express their basic right to vote for the next mayor, next council member, many others ... I think this is very exciting,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Rex Quidilla, elections administrator for the city, called turnout this year “fantastic.”
“It bodes well for future elections,” Quidilla told Hawaii News Now, adding that 60% of voters were already casting their ballots by mail before Hawaii switch to the all-mail-in system.
Lawmakers approved the change last year, becoming the fifth state to do so.
They were hoping to boost the state’s abysmal voter turnout rates. And they certainly couldn’t have known what Hawaii would be grappling with on this primary election day: An alarming surge in new infections of a disease that has already claimed 31 lives in Hawaii and that state officials warn is spreading uncontrollably on Oahu.
But the move to a vote-by-mail system was nonetheless fortuitous, removing the need for long lines and crowds at polling places and giving elections officials more time than their mainland counterparts to prepare for distributing, collecting and counting most ballots by mail.
There was one potential problem that emerged Friday night.
Officials said that 10 city employees at Honolulu Hale and its annex had tested positive for COVID-19, and that they were considering closing city hall — but after election day.
Saturday’s primary election was certainly high stakes.
On Oahu, there was the race for Honolulu mayor, city prosecutor, and City Council seats — not to mention a number of important state legislative seats.
Big Island voters were also participating in a mayoral contest, one for county prosecutor and a number of county council seats.
And there was the race for the second congressional district that represents most of suburban and rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands.
The pandemic has forced candidates to dramatically rethink their strategy for reaching voters. And election night will be no different. Unlike in years’ past, there won’t be any large gatherings at campaign headquarters. And at the end of the night, instead of catching candidates in moments of elation or defeat, reporters will be speaking to contenders via Zoom.
Voters might also miss their neighborhood polling places, where they’d emerge from the voting booth with an “I voted” sticker and a sense of having fulfilled a civic duty.
While mail-in balloting might not feel quite the same, officials are hopeful that the process produces far fewer headaches than traditional voting and that the ease of voting boosts participation.
This story will be updated.