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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Football games could steal voters away from primary

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

A crowded but relatively quiet Democratic primary and a day packed with high-profile football games could lead to exceptionally low voter turnout in the Saturday primary election, according to political observers and party activists.

In primary contests that traditionally have been dominated by party loyalists, perhaps the voters most at risk of wandering away from the election are those who consider themselves independents.

While it is difficult to gauge exactly how turnout might affect specific candidates, a sluggish turnout by independents would probably cause the most serious problems for state Rep. Ed Case, whose campaign has been crafted to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Polls show Case is trailing Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, with businessman D.G. "Andy" Anderson close behind Case in the Democratic primary.

In a typical primary election, independents and some party loyalists are drawn into whatever race looks exciting, said Jim Wang, a University of Hawai'i at Hilo professor emeritus of political science.

For example, most voters who participated in the 1998 primary pulled Republican ballots because Frank Fasi was challenging Linda Lingle in the Republican primary that year. But in 1994 and 1986, most voters pulled Democratic ballots because the Democrats had the contested gubernatorial primaries those years.

The trouble this year, Wang said, is "there's very little stirring anywhere. I don't see people getting very excited about (the primary). The way I see it now, there is very little for people to sort of get excited about."

Russell Okata, executive director of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association, said his union will be working phone banks this week to encourage union members to go to the polls this weekend, but said he has also seen signs that point to a low turnout.

"Based on what I hear in the membership, I don't see any great urgency to vote," Okata said. "Again, I hope I'm wrong."

Case said he expects a higher-than-normal turnout in the Democratic primary because that is where the interesting races are, and because people understand this election is critical to the state's future.

"I do know that if people want change in Hawai'i, as I believe they do, they have to vote for it on Saturday," Case said.

Republican Party officials have begun radio and television advertising to encourage Republican-leaning voters to pull GOP ballots, which may also tend to reduce participation in the three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary. Lingle is facing John Carroll in the primary.

GOP state Chairman Micah Kane said the ads are meant to get people accustomed to voting for Republican candidates. "The more comfortable we can get people to feel about voting on our side of the ticket, the stronger I think we will be going into the general election," he said.

To the extent that those advertisements succeed in keeping Republican voters in the Republican primary, they may erode support for Case and Anderson. Anderson is a former Republican Party chairman who remains popular with some longtime Republicans, and Case acknowledges he also hopes to woo some Republican-leaning voters in the primary.

And then there's football. A televised University of Hawai'i game will begin at 3 p.m., and the Aloha Stadium parking lot opens at 2 p.m. in preparation for HHSAA/First Hawaiian Bank Football Classic, a pair of high school games featuring St. Louis School and Kahuku High School playing powerhouse teams from California.

Promoters hope for a sellout in a stadium that seats 50,000 and the game may be televised locally. Wang predicted the games will siphon off some potential voters.

"It will draw some people out of it that otherwise would go to the polls," Wang said. "They've got an excuse: they've got to watch the ball game."

If that happens, it conceivably could have a disproportionate impact on the campaign of James R. "Duke" Aiona, who is in a close Republican primary contest for lieutenant governor with Dalton Tanonaka on the Republican ticket.

Aiona, a St. Louis basketball and football standout and a longtime St. Louis coach, said he is aware that the St. Louis game at Aloha Stadium Saturday evening could attract some of his supporters.

Aiona said his campaign has been reminding St. Louis alumni to vote absentee or before the game, and said he does not expect the game will affect his race.

Rex Quidilla, executive assistant in the state Office of Elections, said the football games need not interfere with any voting because the polls open at 7 a.m. Saturday, and voters can still vote absentee at four walk-in sites today and tomorrow.

Those walk-in early voting sites are at Windward Mall, City Hall, the Pearlridge Satellite City Hall and Koko Marina Center.

"At this point in the game, it's really incumbent on the public to decide on participation in the system," he said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.