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 after the storm prompted officials to close polls in two remote precincts on the Big Island last week on election day.
A crowd emerged early but eased by midafternoon at an elementary school that played host to the makeup election for more than 8,000 voters. About 850 ballots had been cast as of 12:30 p.m., said David Tarnas, Hawaii County Democratic Party chairman.
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.
"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.
The voting went forward after a state judge ruled Thursday against a legal challenge from Hanabusa. The congresswoman had sought a delay, saying voters in the area needed more time to recover from the storm. The state countered, saying elections officials were informed that roads were clear and citing a need to swiftly wrap the election.
"The court is not supposed to interfere with an ongoing election process," Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura ruled.
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 of Friday afternoon, about 3,800 customers were without electricity on the Big Island, utility officials said. The outages are almost entirely in the Puna District.
There was some confusion as some area residents arrived thinking anyone who missed last week's vote could cast ballots.
Martha Holman, who remained without electricity or phone service, heard about the makeup election on the radio. She was turned away since she lives in Kapoho, where polls were open last week.
"I thought everybody who missed election day would be able to vote today," she said. "It's just wrong to do this ... If I could vote I would vote for the one person who's not Schatz."
Hanabusa trailed by 1,635 votes going into Friday, needing to crush Schatz in both margin and turnout to make up the deficit. 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. If all 8,255 registered voters cast ballots and Hanabusa took 60 percent, she would beat Schatz by only 16 votes.
Hawaii County officials said nearly 1,500 voters in the two affected 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.
The winner will go on to face Republican Cam Cavasso and Libertarian Michael Kokoski in the November general election.
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, not taking his lead for granted, vowed to make sure the storm-recovery efforts continue beyond the election.
"Turnout seems brisk, enthusiasm is high, and obviously the state and the nation's attention is on Puna," Schatz said. "It's an exciting time."
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.