PAHOA, Hawaii (AP) — A steady flow of residents recovering from Tropical Storm Iselle began casting votes Friday to finally decide who wins Hawaii's Democratic U.S. Senate primary — a race expected to determine who will serve the final two years of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye's term in the strongly Democratic state.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa were in primary overtime, as the storm forced the closure of polls of two remote Big Island precincts on election day last week.
It was busy since polls opened Friday at an elementary school for the makeup election for more than 8,000 voters, said Pat Nakamoto, Hawaii County elections administrator. "And because of that, we're in the process of adding more equipment to accommodate the voters who have shown up to vote."
There were long lines of people waiting to vote as the morning wore on.
The voters in the remote, isolated Puna region have an unusual power to decide a nail-biting race even as many still struggle with power outages, blocked roads and basic necessities in the storm's aftermath.
Carol Cable said she was grateful for the makeup vote, now that electricity has been restored to her home in the Hawaiian Beaches subdivision.
"We're doing well, I can't thank (the electric company) the police and the county enough. It's getting better and better every day," she said. "At first standing in line for 2 ½ hours for one bag of ice was a hardship. Now it's all figured out, and they're able to meet individual needs."
Cable, 60, said she voted for Hanabusa. "If Sen. Inouye thought she could do it, then so do I," she said, referring to the senator's dying wish that Hanabusa replace him. Schatz was appointed to the seat by Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who lost his own re-election bid last week.
A state judge upheld the timing of the makeup primary election Thursday despite a last-minute challenge from Hanabusa, who said the Puna district voters need more time to recover from damage from Tropical Storm Iselle.
Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura ruled the election should proceed despite concerns about its legitimacy.
"The court is not supposed to interfere with an ongoing election process," Nakamura said Thursday. But he added: "If you take a popular poll now, the poll would indicate that there's a lack of common sense to hold the election tomorrow."
As he spoke, about 6,300 customers were without electricity on the Big Island, with about 200 utility poles and 130 transformers damaged and needing to be replaced, utility officials said. The outages are almost entirely in the Puna District, which was the hardest hit when Iselle made landfall last week.
Hanabusa trailed Schatz by 1,635 votes going into Friday's voting, needing to crush Schatz in both margin and turnout to make up the deficit in the two precincts. If the precincts attract 50 percent turnout — an average of 300 voters an hour — Hanabusa needs support from 7 in 10 voters to eke out a win. Even if all 8,255 registered voters cast ballots and Hanabusa got 60 percent of the vote, she would only beat Schatz by 16 votes.
Hawaii County officials said nearly 1,500 voters in the two precincts cast ballots early, either through the mail or at early walk-in voting sites that were open nearly two weeks before Hawaii's original primary Aug. 9.
Hanabusa and Schatz were waving at motorists near the elementary school Friday.
"I feel sorry for the people of Puna because this is not the time for an election to go forward," Hanabusa said. "But notwithstanding, it is what it is and I'm hoping that the people of Puna will vote because after all, as they say, this is an example of every vote will count."
Schatz vowed to make sure the storm-recovery process continues beyond the election.
"Today is about the campaign, and we're just going to make sure we keep campaigning until the last vote is cast and counted," he said.
Cathy Bussewitz can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cbussewitz
Associated Press Writers Oskar Garcia and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu and Karin Stanton and Marco Garcia in Pahoa contributed to this report.