LIHUE — County of Kauai had the highest primary election turnout rates, according to preliminary state election reports.
It is that fact that, some county officials and election watchers say, can be partly attributed to several important factors, including the debate on genetically modified organisms and pesticides and tax raises.
In all, 47 percent of registered voters on Kauai and Niihau, or 19,366 people, cast ballots in this year’s primary election, marking the highest participation rate for the county in 12 years.
Oahu was second highest at 43.4 percent.
“We would always like more people to turn out, but I guess the fact that it is higher than it was in 2012 is a good thing,” County Elections Administrator Lyndon Yoshioka said. “Early voting seemed to be much higher than it was in earlier years, and the numbers seem to reflect that. I guess the fact that the weather was uncertain on Saturday drove people to vote early, so we were happy about that.”
But what drove Kauai voters to the polls at a higher rate than the rest of the state?
Jan TenBruggencate, a former Kauai bureau reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser, said three hot-button issues may have spurred people to vote — debates on regulating pesticides and genetically modified organisms; the gubernatorial race for Neil Abercrombie’s seat; and the hotly contested race for the congressional seat once held by late Sen. Daniel Inouye, particularly the one between Democrats Colleen Hanabusa and Brian Schatz.
“I wasn’t surprised that Kauai led the state in turnout,” TenBruggencate said. “Kauai used to lead the state in turnout in the 1970s, and to some degree, in the 1980s on a regular basis, and we sort of lost that. But during the 1970s and 1980s, we had very entertaining political battles, and we certainly have that again. There have been times in the past when you said there was no difference in the positions of the candidates for the County Council, but this year, there were clearly differences.”
Sen. Ron Kouchi, who is not up for re-election this year, agreed and added that recent increases on real property tax bills likely played a part in primary election outcomes.
“Clearly, Mel Rapozo has been elected to the council in numerous elections, but he never has been first in any of them,” Kouchi said. “To see him and Ross Kagawa at No. 1 and 2, and they were the two who voted against the tax increases, that seems to make the biggest impression to me, at least relative to the council race.”
Ross Kagawa agreed with Kouchi but said some homeowners, especially those with mortgages, might not have seen changes on their tax bills before they cast their votes.
“It’s hard to say exactly how it changed the numbers, but if you look at the numbers from nationally and here at the county level, everybody is struggling for money especially taxpayers, so I think it’s common sense that taxpayers want to see some stability and reductions in the fees that they pay,” Kagawa said.
The County of Kauai, according to a TGI analysis of state elections data, was second in the state when it came to jumps in absentee voting.
A total of 11,550 county residents, or 59.6 percent of all primary election voters, mailed in their ballots — a 31.3 percent increase from 2012. The remaining 7,816 voters, meanwhile, went out to the polls and voted.
“Every year, that number seems to go up,” Yoshioka said. “That does seem to indicate that people prefer the convenience of early voting.”
The remaining primary turnout rates were 37.6 percent for the County of Hawaii; and 32.2 percent for the County of Maui, which includes the islands of Lanai and Molokai.
The County of Maui led the state with a 33.6 percent jump in absentee voting — 11,551 registered voters in 2014 compared to 15,432 in 2012.
Despite some strides in voter turnout, the overall statewide primary turnout rate slid to 41.4 percent this year, compared to 42.3 percent in 2012 and 42.8 percent in 2010, according to uncertified election records.
The worst primary election turnout in the state’s history occurred in 2008, when only 36.9 percent of all registered voters cast their ballots.