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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 5, 2006

Many excuses not to vote, plus a few why to

Video: Hawaii's low voter turnout
StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Johnny Brannon and Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writers

The major races in Tuesday's election are widely seen as done deals, and low voter turnout will likely benefit well-known incumbents, experts say.

But state House and Senate districts are small enough to produce surprise endings if leading candidates take victory for granted or their backers don't bother to vote.

Last week's poor weather may have discouraged some early walk-in voting, but lackluster races and habitual voter apathy or disgust are probably more to blame for the low turnout so far.

"It seems to me a waste of time to vote for races that already seem decided," said Ryan Sato, a medical student from Hawai'i Kai.

"It seems like no matter who's in office, it's always the same thing," said construction worker Danny Bell of Waimea on the Big Island. "I shouldn't feel that way, but I do."

Kai Luke, a retired zookeeper from Kuli'ou'ou, isn't very inspired by most politicians either, but that won't stop him from voting.

"I tend to vote against the person I like the least," he said. "It's kind of a negative way of voting, but there are not many candidates who really excite me."

Voter turnout has been mostly dismal in Hawai'i over the past decade among the lowest in the nation.

About 80,000 absentee mail and walk-in ballots had been received statewide by Thursday evening, and walk-in absentee voting ended yesterday.

Mail-in ballots are expected to trickle in until Tuesday evening, and the total of all absentee votes is expected to be about one-third of the ballots cast in the election.

More than 133,000 absentee ballots were cast in the 2004 general election, and just over 110,000 were cast in 2002, the last general election that did not include a presidential race.

This year's two biggest races for U.S. Senate and Hawai'i governor feature incumbents from opposing political parties, and their ability to draw supporters could impact other contests.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka is widely expected to defeat challenging Republican state Rep. Cynthia Thielen. And Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is virtually certain to fend off Democratic former state Sen. Randall Iwase.

The 2nd Congressional District race between Democratic former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and Republican state Sen. Bob Hogue is expected to be closer, with Hirono the presumed front-runner.

The more intriguing question now is whether support for Akaka or Lingle or opposition to President Bush will splash on to party-mates seeking state House and Senate seats.

Democrats currently dominate both chambers, with majorities of 41 to 10 in the House, and 20 to 5 in the Senate. The numbers allow the party to set the legislative agenda and overturn Lingle vetoes.

Lingle has been the most visible candidate in this election, but she hasn't made strong appeals to voters to support fellow Republicans, noted University of Hawai'i political science professor and ombudsman Neal Milner.

And she hasn't demonstrated the ability to sweep other Republicans into office on her coattails before, he said.

"There's been no evidence to speak of in Lingle's history as governor that the coattails effect works much, and I don't see any reason that that's likely to change now," Milner said.

Republicans lost five House seats in 2004 the first general election following Lingle's 2002 victory despite Lingle's personal campaigning for party-mates. All five candidates Lingle endorsed for the state Board of Education were also defeated.

But 2004 included a hard-fought presidential election, in which turnout among Hawai'i's Democrats was higher than usual.

This year, Lingle is running a strong re-election campaign, enjoys high popularity, and has been very visible in dealing with Hawai'i's problems with homelessness and the effects of the Oct. 15 earthquakes, noted longtime Honolulu political consultant Don Clegg.

She hasn't strongly stressed her Republican affiliation, but it could still translate into help for Republican candidates if she draws in voters who cast ballots along party lines, he said.

"If she can pull in the solid Republicans, they could pick up some House seats," Clegg said.

Scott Clauson, a construction project manager from Kalihi Valley, said he's a Lingle supporter who intends to support only Republicans.

"I believe that if I vote, it's going to make more of a difference because there are so many people who don't care to vote," he said.

Fox Lach, a hairdresser from Manoa, said she'll vote for specific candidates, rather than their political parties.

"My plan is to vote for who I feel is going to accomplish the changes I'd like to see," she said. "I believe that if you want to see change, you have to be active and get out there and do it."

Akaka has run a low-key campaign after beating Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Case in the primary election.

But opposition to Bush and the war in Iraq is thought to be drawing more young Democrats to the polls nationally, and similar sentiment could affect voting patterns here, said UH professor Milner.

"If there's an increase in interest, and there's any kind of coattails, it's riding against George Bush's coattails, rather than anything else," he said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com and Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.