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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 24, 2008

Huge voter turnout a pleasant surprise

By Mark Platte
Advertiser Editor

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Four years ago, the Democratic Party caucuses in Hawai'i barely caused a stir in The Advertiser, meriting just four stories leading up to the final vote that saw 12 delegates pledged to John Kerry and eight to Dennis Kucinich.

It was understandable. As we wrote at the time, "Hawai'i doesn't hold a presidential primary and seeing a major candidate campaigning here is a long shot. Traditionally, the nomination has been sewn up by the time Hawai'i parties formally express their preference, and any action here is usually overshadowed by happenings in larger states."

Even moving up our caucuses a week before Super Tuesday in 2004 to secure a more meaningful role for our 20 delegates and nine superdelegates brought just 4,000 people to the preference poll. That was a huge number compared to the 1,200 who voted in 2000.

This year's coverage was shaping up as another typical nonevent when the Democratic race started to get interesting in Iowa in January. And a month later, on Super Tuesday when Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton pretty much split the delegates in 22 states, it became clear that Hawai'i finally would have a role albeit a small one in a presidential race and The Advertiser would have to mobilize.

We wrote more than 20 stories on the caucus in the two weeks between Super Tuesday and our own Tuesday, breaking the news of Obama's TV ads, conducting interviews with both candidates, recording the comings and goings of Chelsea Clinton and Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, while detailing the complicated caucus process with a Sunday Page One graphic.

In the days leading to the caucus, we quoted party officials as saying perhaps 12,000 people might come out to vote and that number was increased to between 15,000 and 18,000 as the excitement over the race kept building. But nobody was even close when it came to predicting who would turn out.

Voters overwhelmed polling sites, registration forms quickly disappeared and candidate choices were written on scraps of paper, sometimes on both sides. Nobody could predict that nearly 40,000 people would show up with who-knew-how-many turned away because of the confusion and long lines.

It appeared early in the proceedings that one of two nightmarish scenarios might emerge: no official results for days or a contested outcome with thousands of ballots ruled invalid and weeks of recounting. Thanks to an outpouring of support for Obama, neither storyline came true.

Reporter Treena Shapiro said that when she ventured out to Manoa Elementary School to watch the voting firsthand, her expectations weren't very high.

"I'm a political junkie, so I get excited every election cycle and I'm always disappointed that so many Hawai'i adults decide to stay home rather than head to the polls," she said. "I really didn't expect much from the caucuses, especially since people had to battle rush hour to get there after a long day of work or school. Obviously, I was wrong."

She described a noisy and crazy scene in which U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie had to yell into a microphone to be heard, a rare occurrence for the boisterous congressman. He was trying to shepherd voters in and out as the crowd built outdoors. Shapiro said it was pitch black outside and boiling hot inside but voters seemed to take it all in stride and enjoy themselves in the process.

Christie Wilson, who was at Baldwin High School on Maui, had a similar reaction to caucus night.

"I'm usually pretty cynical about politics, one of my least favorite topics to cover, and I got caught up in the excitement and this was just a caucus!" she said. "Sounds corny but you really got the sense that it was government by the people."

Wilson was struck by the diversity of the crowd ("old-timers, people in wheelchairs, young couples, on-duty firemen, surfer dudes, influential attorneys, construction workers and everyone in between") and how they stuck it out despite the long lines.

Our coverage online Tuesday night and in Wednesday's newspaper was comprehensive and captured the sense of the evening. It also detailed the frustration of those who could not be part of this historic night.

But what a pleasant surprise to be able to watch Hawai'i voters whose turnout for the 2000 presidential election was the worst in the nation at 40.9 percent giddy with excitement over the Clinton-Obama race and wanting to be part of something special.

"It was easily the most fun I've had covering a story in 2008 and it gives me a lot of hope for election coverage later in the year," Shapiro said.

Mark Platte is senior vice president/editor of The Honolulu Advertiser. Reach him at mplatte@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8080.

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