Blank ballots and no-shows influence elections, too

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HILO — Just 79 votes could have saved Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille her place at the table.

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HILO — Just 79 votes could have saved Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille her place at the table.

Yet 264 people in that district walked in to a polling place or filled out their absentee ballot without voting in that race at all, which ended with challenger Tim Richards winning.

The 303 votes Puna Councilman Danny Paleka needed to keep his seat could have been cast by the 322 people who voted in the election but didn’t fill in the blank for that council race. Instead, Paleka was ousted by Jen Ruggles.

Only 16 votes made the difference between Hilo council candidates Moana Kelii and Grace Castillo moving on to a Nov. 8 runoff. But 784 people didn’t pick a candidate in that one, allowing Kelii to face vote-leader Sue Lee Loy in the general election.

The 929 voters who left their ballots blank in the race for county mayor and the 5,516 who skipped the county prosecutor race wouldn’t have changed the results, but it’s still significant that they chose not to vote in the only two countywide races on the ballot.

“I’m not as well known as people think I am,” Prosecutor Mitch Roth said Monday about those 5,516 missed opportunities.

Roth, who easily won over challenger Mike Kagami, saw the blank votes as an indication his office needs to step up its public relations.

“We’ve been doing a lot of great things, but we haven’t been playing it up,” Roth said.

Wille encountered a similar problem with her backers. She said her campaign was urging voters to remind 10 other people to go vote, but they kept assuring her she had it won.

“There was just overconfidence, and apparently I didn’t convince enough people of that need to vote,” Wille said. “In the end, they did a better get-out-the-vote than I did.”

Richards notes that the 264 blank votes in his race was the lowest number of blank votes for any county race on the ballot.

“I have to believe that we all did a good job in educating the public as to our thoughts,” he said in an email. “As to why we won? Our message struck a chord and resonated with the people. In effect, we won because we put our ‘rubber boots on the ground,’ connected to the local working families, listened to and heard what they had to say.”

Add in the registered voters who didn’t vote at all, and it could have been a whole ‘nother election.

Just 37.3 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters turned in a ballot this election, compared to 34.8 percent statewide, an all-time low. That’s down from 42.6 percent in the 2012 primary, the last time there was a mayoral race on the ballot, and 37.5 percent in the 2014 primary, when Tropical Storm Iselle was playing havoc with Puna polling places.

Absentee ballots and early voting have been steadily increasing across the island and statewide. Some 65.9 percent of Big Island voters cast early ballots either at early voting precincts or by mail. That compares to 61.9 percent statewide.

Why do voters skip races on the ballot? And why do they register and then not vote at all?

Some people go to the polls or send in an absentee ballot to vote for one particular person, said political analyst Dan Boylan. Others may be interested only in the general election.

“They may have fixated on one particular race,” Boylan said. “They may have gone in to vote for a friend, or an auntie or someone in their church.”

A couple of people were confused about their ballot, telling a reporter Saturday they thought only Democrats could vote for mayor. Some may have neglected to turn the ballot over, where nonpartisan county races were printed.

The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill may have famously said, “All politics is local.” But that’s not always the case in the voting booth.

Some voters look for the federal races at the top of the ballot but don’t bother with their local races. Many more voters vote in the general election than the primary, especially in presidential election years.

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Or they’ll leave the ballot blank if they’re unsure about any of the candidates, either because they don’t like the choices or they don’t recognize the candidates.

“They’re just not sure which candidate to vote for,” Boylan said.

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