High voter turnout showed frustration with state’s political class

Hawaii’s most recent primary election achieved several milestones, and University of Hawaii political scientist Colin Moore discussed their significance on Keli’i Akina’s “Hawaii Together” program on the ThinkTech Hawaii network, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

Moore, an associate professor and the director of the UH Public Policy Center, said perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Aug. 8 primary was the number of people who voted.

“We had over 400,000 people cast ballots” he said. “This was the first time we had an all mail-in voting system, and increased turnout like that is really extraordinary. … Our turnout increased from 2016, which was the last primary we had during a presidential election year, by nearly 17 percentage points, which has never happened in any other state. I mean, that’s 150,000 new voters … [who] participated in 2020. That’s like the entire island of Maui deciding to vote.”

Moore said the turnout might have been influenced by so many people being at home because of the coronavirus lockdowns. But more likely was the “incredible dissatisfaction with the state of politics in Hawaii,” which also led to developments such as no veteran politicians making the runoff in the Honolulu mayor’s race.

Moore has a Ph.D. from Harvard and was a fellow at Yale and the University of California, Berkley. He also is the author of “I am the author of American Imperialism and the State: 1893-1921,” published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press. If you care about politics in Hawaii, this is an interview you won’t want to miss.

The complete transcript is below.

Keli’i Akina: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina, your host, and I’m the president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Delighted to be with you today. There is so much going on in our world today. We’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve got a presidential election taking place, and we have the Hawaii elections. The primary has just finished, and we’re on our way to the general.

With all this going on, I’m glad I have a guest today who knows exactly what’s taking place politically. He’s Colin Moore, a professor at the University of Hawaii, head of the public policy program over there. He is a political scientist. He’s been very astute in his comments on what’s taking place in the recent elections, and I’m glad that we’re going to be able to talk story with him today. Colin, welcome to the program. Good to have you on board.

Colin Moore: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Akina: Before we dive into the elections, just give me a little bit about your background. How did you end up becoming a political pundit, so to speak? I don’t imagine that it’s something, when you’re a little boy, thinking about being a fireman or being a doctor, you necessarily would say, “I want to grow up and become a political pundit.”

Moore: No, that’s true. I’ve always loved politics and followed it. Then, I became a political scientist, in part, because of that, but more on the research. Then, it really wasn’t until I came to Hawaii in 2011 that I started being asked by the media to comment on things. It just grew from there. One thing about Hawaii is it’s so small. There’s actually, surprisingly, a small number of people who really follow our politics that carefully. I really just fell into the role, but it’s been a lot of fun. We have such a unique political scene here in Hawaii that I’ve enjoyed comparing it to things that have happened on the mainland and trying to puzzle through all the different things that happen.

Akina: Well, although there are relatively few, as you say, people who follow politics closely, a lot of people know about politics because of you, because you’ve been on television, on the major news channels, and your voice is being heard. Now, we just finished the primary season for 2020. We’re headed into the general election. What’s your big take away from the primary season? As you’ve observed Hawaii go into that process it goes into every two years, what was different about it this year? What’s the big thing we’ve learned?

Moore: Sure. The biggest difference this year was tremendous voter turnout. We had over 400,000 people cast ballots. This was the first time we’ve had an all mail-in voting system. Increased turnout like that is really extraordinary. No other state has experienced this when they moved to all-mail voting. Our turnout increased from 2016, which was the last primary we had in a presidential year, by nearly 17 percentage points, which has never happened in any other state. That’s 150,000 new voters, or at least people who didn’t vote previously, participated in 2020. That’s like the entire island of Maui deciding to vote. I think that had enormous implications for some of the things that happened this primary.

Akina: Well, that’s incredible. I’m going to ask you to put your political science thinking cap on and tell us why this surge in voter participation took place. I’ve heard all kinds of explanations. One of the more popular explanations I’ve heard is that so many people are just sitting around at home with nothing to do [chuckles] because of the coronavirus, but I think you may have a little more analytical take than that.

Moore: Sure. I mean, there’s a possibility that that’s true, and that may have contributed somewhat to what we see. But I think there’s some deeper explanations. One, we’ve been waiting for this for a long time. We know that there is incredible dissatisfaction with the state of politics in Hawaii, with the performance of the Legislature, with the lot of the mainstream Democratic Party. When you ask people what they think, on public opinion polls, we do really quite poorly even compared to the mainland. There’s this sense of frustration that certainly motivates people to turn up.

I think that the technology of mail-in voting, that helps a little bit. We know from other studies, particularly, when this happened in the state of Colorado, the estimates are that their turnout increased by as much as 9 percentage points. We know that this really leads to more turnout from young people and people who don’t traditionally participate in politics. Those are a couple of the big things that we see going on.

The third one, and this is really significant, is just the amount of attention people are paying to politics right now. Part of this is due to people’s feelings about the Trump administration, some of it’s due to the politicization of issues like law enforcement around Black Lives Matter and other issues. One measure of this is if you look at national polls that ask people, “Does it matter who wins the presidential election this year?” There’s never been a poll since this question is asked where so many people say, “Yes, it matters.” In part, politics is on people’s mind, and that filtered down even to a primary like ours where, with the exception of the mayor’s race, there really weren’t any major statewide races.

Akina: You talk about the rise in voter participation. Does that reflect a decrease in apathy? You mentioned that people, perhaps now, are feeling that who they elect makes a difference to our lives.

Moore: I hope so. There’s a few ways that this could end up playing out. This could just be a blip, a one-time thing. I expect it’ll be repeated in the general election, but will this continue? Does this mean we have a new baseline for our voter turnout? If we do, that means, if we get the turnout we got during the primary election, we’re basically right there in the median. Hawaii, no longer is the worst state for voter turnout. In fact, we wouldn’t even be particularly bad.

We’ll have to see, but it does appear that people have been shaken out of their apathy. I’m sure it’s some combination of deep polarization, which isn’t always a good thing, but it does often lead people to participate, in some context, and a sense that what happens matters in a way that may be more profound than it was before the coronavirus and some of these other crises that we’re facing.

Akina: Before going into the all mail-in ballot voting, there was a sense of strangeness about it because we’d never experienced it before, but a normalcy seems to have emerged very rapidly. One of the things that some have claimed is that there’s a greater voter fraud because of the mail-in process. What are your thoughts on that?

Moore: I don’t see any evidence that that’s true. There have been cases of fraud. First, there’s no greater likelihood of fraud with mail-in voting than traditional voting. There’s always ways to commit voter fraud, from “losing” ballots from particular precincts, but I’ve never seen any evidence that indicates that a fraud is greater with mail-in voting. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how you would pull something like that off with ballots arriving at different times through the Postal Service.

Voter fraud usually is committed to favor one candidate or the other. It’s quite difficult to pull that off. Where you do see it on occasion is [in] what’s called “ballot harvesting,” where people might go around and intimidate people to fill in their ballot a certain way or look over their shoulder. Those cases are relatively rare. Overall, people favor mail-in voting or all-mail voting. People like the ability, in the privacy of their own home, to research the candidates. It’s quite popular with most voters as well. Fraud is not my concern with mail-in voting.

Akina: One of the things that we’ve focused on in the news is our state’s lack of capacity when it comes to data processing, especially in the Department of Labor, with processing of unemployment claims and so forth. How did we do in terms of data processing with the election?

Moore: We did extraordinarily well. I’ve been critical of the Office of Elections in the past, but I don’t think there’s any room to criticize them for how they handled and processed the ballots for all-mail voting. They had a team of volunteers even in this very difficult period with COVID. This is partly because we have four other states that already have mail-in voting, all-mail voting, so they were able to borrow the best practices and some of the technology from states like Colorado. It would be hard to say that they didn’t process the ballots quickly, accurately. I haven’t heard of any problems that folks had in those centers where you could drop off mails at the last minute.

I understand from Scott Nago, the chief elections officer, [that] they were a little surprised at how many people ended up dropping those ballots off. One improvement would be to increase the number of places where people could do that, [for] people who don’t feel comfortable sending their ballots through the mail or just don’t fill it in to the last minute, because that’s another quirk. Another thing I was worried about [with] our mail-in voting process was that voters wouldn’t understand that the ballot had to be received by Election Day, it couldn’t be mailed by Election Day. But there were a relatively small number of ballots that weren’t able to be counted, so I think the Elections Office performed very well.

Akina: We have a quick question from a viewer of the ThinkTech Hawaii Network. Do you think Trump sabotaging the USPS postal service will affect mail-in voting significantly? That’s literally the question of our viewer.

Moore: There’s a possibility. I mean, it’s less likely now that there is so much attention paid to what’s going on with the postal service. Generally, it’s a good idea if you’re worried about this as a voter to put your ballot in early if you’re going to mail it in. That would guarantee that it ends up being counted. I’m concerned about this because it’s pretty clear that the administration has an agenda here.

I wouldn’t normally say that, but President Trump himself has indicated that this is partly the thinking behind some of the changes at the USPS. I am concerned about that. It could be a tremendous disaster. Whatever you think about President Trump’s politics, I find it pretty disturbing that there are these efforts, in my opinion, to suggest that our elections may not be secure and to do things that might actually make them less secure, or at least make the postal service less able to deliver people’s ballots on time.

Akina: Let’s go to the primary. The biggest race was the mayoral race, and the field was huge. How do you account for so many people throwing their hat into the ring knowing, as many of them must, that they’re definitely not going to win?

Moore: That’s always such an interesting question, Keli’i. I always wonder that. People who must know that they don’t have a real shot at this, so many candidates jumping in. It’s a combination of things. There are some candidates who may just not even fully understand that they don’t have a shot. There’s a lot that are just trying to raise issues, raise questions. They use this as a platform. Maybe you get a candidate like Choon James, for example, who ran a reasonable campaign and raised important questions even though she might’ve been thought of as more of a fringe figure by some.

I still think these candidates play an important role in driving the conversation in certain directions. This is why even more conservative candidates who, in a state like Hawaii, often don’t have a chance of winning the election. I still think that provides a platform to get new ideas heard. I tend to think that that’s sometimes what’s going on in the minds of candidates who really, at the end of the day, don’t manage to get more than 1% of the vote, if they’re lucky.

Akina: Much has been made of the fact that the candidates with political background did not break into the primary, but two who have business background and no political office in their histories managed to do so — Amemiya and Blangiardi. What are your thoughts on that?

Moore: That’s right. This is extraordinary for Hawaii, where we often tend to vote in the same old incumbents. There’s a very clear political class where people will move from one elected office to another. So this was a remarkable development. I had anticipated that one of these candidates would break through, one of the experienced candidates. I thought that would be Colleen Hanabusa. One clear message from voters from the polling that happened before this was that this was a “change” election. This particular moment in time offered an opportunity for candidates from the outside, the two business candidates, to connect with voters and get that support.

Akina: It certainly is a change for Hawaii, and we’ll talk more about that when we come back after a quick break. My guest today is Colin Moore from the University of Hawaii. We’re talking about the elections. When we come back, we’ll move forward toward the general election coming up. I’m Keli’i Akina on ThinkTech Hawaii’s Hawaii Together. Don’t go away.

Krista Stadler: Aloha, I’m Krista Stadler, the host of Non-Profits Mean Business Too on ThinkTech Hawaii. Non-Profits Mean Business Too investigates the operational challenges and costs related to managing nonprofit organizations while encouraging our viewers to find a nonprofit organization that you’re passionate about in our community. We are streamed live on ThinkTech Hawaii biweekly at 12:00 p.m. on Thursdays. Thank you so much for watching our show. We look forward to seeing you then. Mahalo.


Akina: We’re back on Hawaii Together on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina with my guest, Colin Moore, of the University of Hawaii. Colin, there were several polls throughout the primary season, as there usually are, and many of them showed in the mayoral race that hardly anyone amassed a very large following. And then, finally, one showed that Blangiardi was ahead. It looks to me as though the polls were actually pretty accurate by the time we got our results. What was the quality of polling you think this year?

Colin: Oh, I think it was high. The public polls that were conducted, for example, the Hawaii News Now-Civil Beat poll, was a robust poll. They had 1,000 respondents, which is big, particularly, for the size of the state and population they’re trying to measure. I wasn’t surprised to see that the polls were pretty accurate in finding the results. I mean, there were some undecided voters until relatively late in the process, and the question was whether or not they were going to break, at the end of the day, for these less experienced candidates or return to experience. That’s why there were a lot of questions about whether Amemiya or Hanabusa would come out as that second-place finisher.

The most revealing thing from one of those polls, and this was the Civil Beat-Hawaii News Now poll, was when they asked respondents, “Do we need experience or a fresh approach?” Fifty-five percent of the respondents said, “We need a fresh approach.” Once I saw that, I was pretty convinced that the two outside but mainstream and well-funded candidates, Amemiya and Blangiardi, were going to break through.

Akina: Were there any other races than the mayoral race that are worth noting to our audience today?

Moore: There’s a couple that I would point to. The biggest, what happened in Downtown Honolulu. This was the district of Speaker Scott Saiki, who faced a robust challenge from the progressive activist, Kim Coco Iwamoto, who came very close to beating him, within 200 votes, which is almost unheard of. This is partially a testament to her funding, the sophistication of the campaign. And also, the district that that’s in, because of the development in Kaka’ako, has a lot of new people moving in who aren’t necessarily loyal to the incumbent speaker. I know that really sent shock waves through the political class of Hawaii to see the person who is arguably the third most powerful figure in Hawaii politics nearly lose his seat.

Akina: It’s a recurring theme we see in the elections. Then, of course, we had a race for the prosecutor. Just as with the mayoral race, a large number of people who probably did not have much of a chance to amass a large following tried out, but these are people who are driven by their convictions. What are your thoughts about the results of the prosecutor race?

Moore: That’s right. This was another crowded race. The prosecutors, the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, is an interesting office because there’s only been three people who’ve ever held that office since it became an elected position in the early ’80s. This was one of these brief moments where an office that rarely gets much attention got a lot. One interesting thing about this race is you had really three or four distinct choices. The first thing I’d point out is that Dwight Nadamoto, who is the current acting prosecutor, was roundly rejected. This just goes to show how much people wanted new blood in that office. They weren’t going to support a candidate people thought of, fairly or unfairly, as a successor to Keith Kaneshiro.

Then, voters had a choice through Jacquie Esser, who’s a public defender. As someone who represents a very liberal progressive position, her campaign — she was a very aggressive campaigner. She didn’t end up getting in that Top 2 spot, but her campaign was buoyed by increased attention around policing and the Black Lives Matter issues. She got a lot of support from progressives.

Then, Judge Alm, who really is the compromise candidate. The respected judge took a majority of those votes, but not enough to win outright, which might have surprised him a little bit. Until the end, there was some expectation that maybe he could reach that 50%-plus-1 threshold in the primary. Then you have Megan Kau, who’s running an interesting race really as an Independent, but she’s run, in some ways, to the right of Judge Alm as more of a traditional law-and-order prosecutor. I’m curious to see how this all works itself out. I expect that Judge Alm will probably win, because I can see him knitting together a larger constituency. But Megan Kau is a fierce campaigner.

Akina: Do you have any observations about the Office of Hawaiian Affairs race? By way of disclosure, I am a trustee in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and one of the two who’ve made it into the runoff for the general election. One thing to preface your response is that in many of the races for OHA trustee, in fact, maybe in all of them, the big-number winner was a person called blank votes on the ballot.

Moore: That’s right. As you know better than anybody, this is often what happens in OHA races. There are going to be fewer blank votes in the general because there are more people who begin to pay attention to OHA in the general. One of the things about running for OHA, and Keli’i you know this better than anybody, is running a campaign and convincing voters who are not Native Hawaiian voters to participate in the OHA race, and that’s long been controversial, of course, but that can be determinative in how some of these OHA races end up sorting themselves out.

That strategy is an interesting one, but it’s being employed more than perhaps it used to. Partly, this is due to the amount of attention OHA’s gotten and a variety of OHA’s problems in the past. There are more non-Native Hawaiian voters, very recently, who participated a little more in those OHA races. Those races I find to be the most difficult to predict because, even knowing what turnout is, it can be so difficult to tell who is going to cast an OHA ballot, because as you suggested, most people still don’t vote for OHA races.

Akina: We’re moving on to the general election, which will conclude on November the 3rd. What are your thoughts as we go forward? In the mayoral race, in particular, we now have the third-place primary contender lending her weight to the first place, and that is Colleen Hanabusa recently announced her endorsement of Rick Blangiardi. Your thoughts?

Moore: There’s been two, maybe not surprising, but interesting, endorsements. Sen. [Brian] Schatz endorsed Keith Amemiya, which is no surprise because we knew he was close. Then, this endorsement from Colleen Hanabusa to Rick Blangiardi is more surprising. It’s a tremendous boost for Blangiardi’s campaign because his difficulty going to the general is that there may be a ceiling for his support.

I can see the mainstream Democratic Party unions rallying around Keith Amemiya and having Blangiardi hit a limit of about 40% that he can’t go above. Having Colleen Hanabusa endorse him is going to be very helpful because all of a sudden — I think that the initial strategy was going to try to paint Blangiardi as a closet Republican, in a similar way that happened with Charles Djou. This is a little more difficult because Blangiardi has never held elected office, so he doesn’t have a voting record that will follow him. Having Hanabusa’s endorsement, a liberal labor Democrat, is going to be very helpful for him, because it’s not going to be as easy for voters to — for this to become a partisan race. Although it’s officially nonpartisan, it’s usually colored by partisanship.

Akina: Yes, that is very interesting. The usual prejudices are falling down, in a sense that we’re seeing some political phenomena we’ve not really seen in the past.

Moore: Yes.

Akina: Now, big on many people’s mind is the presidential campaign, and yet, here in Hawaii, it sometimes doesn’t feel like much of a presidential campaign is taking place. We’re certainly not New Hampshire. We’re not in the thick of the presidential primaries taking place on the mainland. What is the relevance of Hawaii to the presidential election? Let me reverse that as well and ask, what is the relevance of the presidential election to voters in Hawaii?

Moore: I wish I could give you a different answer, but the relevance of Hawaii to the presidential election is basically that Hawaii isn’t particularly relevant. We are a deep blue state. There is no question that Hawaii’s electoral votes will go for Joe Biden. There’s not going to be much campaigning here in Hawaii by either side just because the money is used for states that could go either way.

I do think that the presidential election has a potential to affect Hawaii, not just because we’re so dependent on the actions of the federal government, but also, for our own voter turnout. Excitement around the presidential election gets people to turn out, to vote, and to participate in what we often refer to as the down-ticket races, the mayor’s race, legislative races. That excitement, whether it’s a result of support or anger, that does motivate local people to vote. I expect that that’s going to be its biggest influence here.

Akina: Very good. We’re going to our close now, so a quick minute to answer would do well for the following question. How does COVID-19, the pandemic, impact our general election?

Moore: Tremendously. People feel public policy in a way that maybe we haven’t felt it in 100 years, maybe 50 years. There’s this visceral sense of how the decisions made by elected officials affect your daily life. I think that has become so clear to people that they become more engaged in politics than they otherwise were, because they see what the stakes are.

Akina: That’s something to keep our eyes and ears open about. Colin, thank you very much for being on the program again. Always love talking about this with you, and wish you the best as you continue to be Hawaii’s pundit on the topic.

Moore: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Akina: My guest today was Colin Moore, professor at the University of Hawaii, and one of Hawaii’s leading political scientists when it comes to analyze what’s going on in the elections. Until next time, I’m Keli’i Akina on ThinkTech Hawaii’s “Hawaii Together.”


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