Midterm Elections, Hawaiian Style
OAHU, Hawaii — Unlike in Iowa, Pennsylvania or any one of a number of other states critical to the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections, campaign signs sit beneath swaying palm trees as voters turn out to cast their ballot in the nation’s 50th state.
According to the Pew Research Center, Hawaii has been a solidly blue state for almost the entire time that it’s been a state.
Since that date, Aug. 21, 1959, Hawaiians have voted Democratic in every presidential election except for the 1972 and 1984 contests, when the state handed wins to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Since then, in 2008 then-Sen. Barack Obama easily won the state of his birth, repeating as the incumbent in 2012, garnering 70% of the vote both times.
Though the results were tighter in 2016, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won by a 32 percentage point margin, it gave her the largest margin of any of the 50 states. In 2020, Joe Biden won by just under 30%.
Which is to say, the state comes by its blue reputation honestly. According to Pew’s researchers, heading into Tuesday’s midterm, 58% of registered voters are Democrats, 24% Republican and 18% identify as “moderates.”
Troy Smith, professor of political science at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, said he’s keeping an eye on voter turnout and whether, in variance with tradition, the state follows along with what some are predicting will be a red wave this year.
“Though Hawaii is a traditionally Democratic state, it is also a state that traditionally has a low turnout in elections,” he said. “While that latter trend is likely to continue in this election, it will be interesting to me to see what happens at the margin.”
Smith went on to say the issues he will be watching closely for their impact on the election include the economy, fuel prices and the size of the public debt.
Denise E. Antolini, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, said an issue that will be particularly important in state races is how to rein in what many Hawaiians see as a surplus of tourism.
“There’s a growing consensus that there are too many visitors in sensitive areas,” Antolini said.
“While so-called ‘destination management’ as espoused by some sounds nice, it will do little to actually control tourism,” she said. “We need solutions, such as imposing a ‘green fee’ to pay for impacts, and we need to discourage renegade off-trail tourism fueled by social media.”
According to a report by Jack Kittinger, senior director of the Global Fisheries and Aquaculture Program in Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, in Honolulu, the green tax is a payment required by tourists to enhance the destination’s ecosystem.
Hawaii’s lush jungles and white sand beaches bring in $6 billion annually to Hawaii’s economy, and funding for the maintenance of the state’s “green infrastructure” represents only 1% of its annual budget.
While tourism is far and away the state’s largest industry, Hunter Heaivilin, a food systems planner at Supersistence in Oahu, said he’ll be voting for candidates who prioritize good food policy as well as the diversification of the state economy.
“Our reliance on the tourist industry was certainly highlighted over the course of the pandemic, and I’m hoping to see agriculture, as well as other industries, be supported in years to come,” he said.
Another issue concerning residents is the housing crisis. Antolini states “our housing boom has favored offshore investors instead of residents.”
She notes she will support candidates who will fight for “truly affordable housing for residents, not foreign [mainland] investors.”
A recent study by NiceRX shows that Hawaii has the highest rent compared to salary in the United States. The average rent is about $29,772 while the average salary is $60,389.
In addition, Hawaii has the second-highest homeless rate behind New York state, and 51% of Hawaii’s homeless population are native Hawaiians.
In recent years, state legislators have highlighted short-term vacation rentals as fueling the crisis and banned them. Currently, in Hawaii, it is illegal to rent a space for less than 30 days.
Antolini will be looking for candidates that enforce vacation rental laws and empty home taxation.
College student Saffron Kraynek said for her, “climate change is the most crucial issue facing Hawaii because once our ecosystem is destroyed, it cannot come back.”
“A lot of plants and marine life are found only on the islands, and it would be a shame to lose them,” she added.
And she’s not alone among those in Hawaii who prioritize climate change.
A recent study by The Nature Conservancy found that 89% of Hawaii’s voters understand that climate change is a real and present threat.
Eighty-three percent also acknowledge that humans play a large role in climate change, and seven in 10 of those surveyed said they want immediate action to combat climate change.
Their perspective is understandable. Hawaii is the most isolated island chain on earth and of the 1,400 species of plants and animals that live there, 90% are only found on those islands.
Hawaii is often called the endangered species capital of the world. Hawaiians like Kraynek say conservation is critical, and that she values politicians who highlight environmental efforts.
The nonpartisan website FiveThirtyEight.com has Hawaii in the “solidly blue” column and is forecasting that incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz will run away with his contest, defeating Republican state Rep. Bob McDermott 65.4% to 30%.
All of Hawaii’s congressional seats are expected to be safe for the incumbents, all of whom are Democrats.
Republican Joe Akana, a businessman and former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst, is battling Democratic former state Sen. Jill Tokuda for the only open seat, which represents the 2nd Congressional District covering suburban Honolulu and Hawaii’s rural islands.
Akana secured 28.4% of the vote for the same seat two years ago, when he lost to Democratic Rep. Kaiali‘i Kahele.
Kahele didn’t run for reelection in 2022 and instead chose to mount what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.
In the race to represent Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District covering urban Honolulu, Rep. Ed Case, the incumbent Democrat, is expected to handily beat Republican Conrad Kress, a former Navy SEAL, garnering about 65.5% of the vote to Kress’ 34.5%.
The state’s top race is the gubernatorial contest featuring Republican former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and current Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat.
Aiona served as second-in-command under Hawaii’s last Republican governor from 2002 to 2010 but has run unsuccessfully for governor twice since.
FiveThirtyEight.com is forecasting that Green will garner 62.8% of the vote, compared to Aiona’s 37.2%.
Democrats currently control 47 of the 51 seats in the state House and 24 of the 25 seats in the state Senate. That margin is expected to stay roughly the same.
The other noteworthy thing to know about Hawaiian elections is that it is a vote-by-mail state.
County clerks began mailing ballots to all registered voters in mid-October. Each county operates at least one voter service center where voters can cast ballots in person during the two weeks leading up to Election Day if they choose.
New voters may go there to register to vote, including on Election Day. The counties also maintain numerous drop boxes around their islands where voters can deposit ballots.
The state Office of Elections will begin releasing vote counts once all the voter service centers have closed on Election Day, a process that will start at 7 p.m. local time and continue until the last voters on line at that time have cast their ballots.
Hawaii switched to vote by mail in 2020 under a law passed before the coronavirus pandemic.
Voter turnout surged, hitting 69.6% in that year’s general election. That was up 11 percentage points over 2016 and was the state’s highest voter turnout since 1994.
Of the 579,784 ballots cast, more than 551,000 were returned by mail or ballot drop box and nearly 29,000 were submitted in person.
Eden can be reached at [email protected]