TIME 2014 Election

Corporations, Advocacy Groups Spend Big on Ballot Measures

A still from an advertisement payed for by Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, a group backed by agricultural giants Monsanto and DowAgroSciences YouTube

Spending on TV ads soars to $119 million ahead of Election Day

Bonnie Marsh is worried that many of her neighbors’ health problems stem from big companies farming genetically modified crops around her in Maui County, Hawaii. So she helped collect enough signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would ban growing such crops until an environmental study is done.

“We’ve come forward because we feel there’s a real threat to the health of the Earth,” said Marsh, a nurse who focuses on natural remedies. “We are done being an experimental lab.”

Marsh said her group, Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the ‘Aina, has raised about $700,000 so far for what is the first-ever citizen-initiated ballot measure in Maui County. They’ve used about $17,000 of it to buy TV ads to help get the word out. But Marsh’s group is being outraised and outspent by business-supported opposition.

Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban, a group backed by agricultural giants Monsanto and DowAgroSciences, has already spent more than $2 million — or $23.13 per registered voter in the county — on television ads arguing that the ban would kill jobs, cost the local economy millions of dollars and block crops that have been proven safe.

And more ads could be on the way — the group has not yet filed a report with the state to say how much it has raised, nor would it volunteer the information to the Center for Public Integrity.

More has been spent on television time on that measure than any other local initiative in the nation. It’s also more expensive than more than 100 statewide measures, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

Across the country, large companies and national advocacy groups are putting big dollars behind committees with benign-sounding names that support or oppose ballot initiatives on issues as varied as minimum wage increases in Alaska and recreational marijuana in Florida.

The committees are using that money to put their message out in expensive ads featuring family farmers, concerned doctors and smiling teachers. Voters may not readily be able to identify the patrons behind the millions of dollars in ads, but a who’s who of corporate America — soda king Coca-Cola, agriculture magnate Monsanto and malpractice insurer The Doctors Company — are among them.

Through Oct. 20, TV ad spending on ballot issues totaled roughly $119 million, including $11.3 million on local initiatives such as the one in Maui County.

Four of the five most expensive ballot initiatives feature at least one corporate patron duking it out over the airwaves, getting involved in the initiative process that was designed as a way to give voters a direct voice on public policies.

· The two most expensive propositions were in California. Proposition 46 has drawn more than $23 million in ad spending, while Proposition 45 has attracted $20.5 million. Almost all of it has come from two groups: No on 45 — Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs and No on 46 — Patients, Providers and Healthcare Insurers to Contain Health Costs. The “no” groups are backed by doctors and insurance companies, including The Doctors Company and Blue Shield of California, fighting to stop measures that would force doctors to undergo drug testing and insurers to get new approval for rate hikes, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state campaign finance records.

· Coming in third place was a Colorado amendment to expand gambling, which has drawn about $12 million in ad spending. Of that, $6.4 million came from Coloradans for Better Schools, a group backed by a Rhode Island casino company, Twin River Casino. Competing casinos in Colorado are helping fund $5.7 million in ads opposing the measure through a group called Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos.

· Ranking fourth were two California measures that have been touted as an inseparable duo: Proposition 1, which would authorize a bond issue for water infrastructure projects, and Proposition 2, which would change the state’s “rainy day fund.” Most of the $7.6 million spent on ads supporting the two measures came from California Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democrat has not run any ads for his re-election bid, instead buying $5.6 million in ads through his campaign committee to back the propositions.

· Rounding out the top five, with $5 million in ads, was an Oregon measure that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The No on 92 Coalition, fueled by groups such as Monsanto and the J.M. Smucker Company, is battling natural food companies funding the Vote Yes on Measure 92 committee.

Fewer but costlier initiatives

This year voters have fewer ballot measures to decide than they did four years ago, when a comparable number of offices were up for election. In 2010, voters considered 184 statewide initiatives compared with 158 this year.

Even California voters, well acquainted with lengthy ballots, have only six measures to read through this November.

But this year already has 2010 beat in terms of TV ad spending. In 2010, ballot measure backers and opponents spent about $87 million on ads for the entire election cycle, compared with this year’s $119 million through Oct. 20.

Citizens in 26 states can gather signatures and put a proposal on the ballot that would create a new law or veto an existing one. Every state but Delaware offers voters the chance to weigh in on constitutional amendments approved by the legislature. Once the initiative is approved to go before voters, the ad deluge begins.

Ballot measure opponents and supporters use a number of tools to influence voters — door-knocking, direct mail, digital advertising and more — but television spots have the highest profile influence on such direct democracy.

“TV ads are a very effective way of getting out a message,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who has studied ballot measures for more than 20 years. Advertising can be used “devastatingly well,” he added.

But those ads — and the money behind them — aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it gets people talking, he said, even if a few of them are confusing or misleading. “Increased money usually means there is more information, more awareness of ballot measures,” he added.

Corporate titans rule the airwaves

In California, competing messages about the drug-testing-for-doctors proposition are abundant on the airwaves. Recent transplant James VanBuskirk, a 34-year-old marketer for a property insurance company, says he sees one every time he watches prime-time TV.

Prop 46 tops the ballot measure spending pile in this election, with $23 million spent on thousands of ads across California.

Consumer Watchdog, a national advocacy group, teamed up with trial lawyers to back the measure. Trial lawyers stand to benefit from Prop 46 because, in addition to testing doctors for drug use, it also increases the maximum judges can award for pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. Groups backed by them spent $3.9 million so far on ads supporting the measure.

Consumer advocates and the California Nurses Association have also thrown their money behind Proposition 45, which would require insurers to receive approval for rate hikes from the California insurance commissioner, an elected regulator. Ballot committees supporting the measure have aired more than $679,000 on ads so far.

But their messages have been crowded out by those of insurers and doctors, who are spending big to oppose both measures on the airwaves — with more than $38 million spent on ads so far, about $19 million on each measure — nearly a third of the total amount spent on ballot measure ads nationwide. And there are likely many more ads to come: Groups opposing the two measures together have raised more than $100 million, according to California campaign finance records.

“It’s definitely in the upper stratosphere of California fundraising,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that produces online voter guides.

That doesn’t mean the insurance companies are necessarily going to win. In 2010, a group backed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent almost $14 million on ads supporting a ballot measure that would require local voter approval for any new government-backed utilities. The electric company lost, even though its opponents did not buy any airtime.

Casinos versus casinos

In Colorado, casinos are waging the nation’s third-most-expensive ballot fight over the airwaves this year.

It’s casino versus casinos, according to an analysis of state campaign finance data. One Rhode Island gambling company, Twin River Casino, wants to offer slot machines, blackjack and other games at a racetrack in Aurora, Colorado. In ads, the committee backed by the company promises $100 million of new gambling revenue will be sent to an education fund every year. The ads have run more than 5,500 times, at a cost of about $6.4 million.

But already established gambling operations in Colorado that don’t want more competition have backed a group that has kept pace, spending $5.7 million on ads opposing the measure. “Amendment 68 is not about education. It’s a Rhode Island gambling scheme,” one opposition ad says.

Most Coloradans likely have no idea that casinos are backing the ads on both sides, said Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. Colorado has clear-cut competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, he said, while ballot-measure backers are “muddying the issues.”

“It’s a difficult environment for voters to know everything about a particular ballot measure anyway, in a normal election,” Saunders said. “You have to actually do some digging or find that article on the Internet or newspaper that has that in-depth information, and that’s actually a pretty demanding task for low- and medium-information voters.”

Gambling is also on the ballot in Massachusetts, with a casino-backed group spending about $3.3 million on ads.

In total, gambling-based ballot measures are responsible for $17.5 million in ad spending nationwide.

Food industry food fight

Even soda is getting in on the political ad contests. The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and Pepsi, has pumped millions into a group opposing a Massachusetts ballot measure that would raise fees for beverage distributors and expand the state’s bottle deposit to cover more types of bottles. The beverage lobby-backed group has spent about $2.5 million on TV ads, while pro-initiative forces have not bought any airtime.

The California branch of the beverage-makers group has also backed a group trying to defeat a local initiative in San Francisco that would tax sugary drinks; so far the group has spent $1.8 million on ads, making the measure the second-most expensive local measure in terms of television spots, behind Maui’s initiative.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are also teaming up with other big food businesses like Monsanto and the Hershey Company in their effort to keep Oregon and Colorado from requiring labels on food that contains genetically modified organisms. Groups backed by the team of food companies have spent about $3 million on ads in each state, arguing that the measures would raise food prices and hurt farmers.

“Farming is hard enough. The last thing we need is Measure 92, a bunch of complex, costly regulations that don’t exist in any other state,” says a plaid-shirt-wearing farmer in an ad opposing the Oregon measure.

Proponents of labeling in Oregon, backed by natural food companies, have spent $2 million on television ads in the state. “I want you to be able to trust the food you feed your family,” says another plaid-shirt-wearing farmer, who favors the measure. Proponents in Colorado have not aired ads.

Winning hearts

Corporations aren’t the only big players in state ballot measures this year. National advocacy groups are also tugging at heartstrings on the airwaves.

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have teamed up to oppose anti-abortion measures in Tennessee and Colorado. In Tennessee, a group backed by the pair has spent about $1.3 million on TV ads against a measure that would give the legislature more leeway to regulate abortion. Proponents of the measure, backed by Tennessee Right to Life, have spent about $606,000 on ads.

In Colorado, a Planned Parenthood-backed group has spent $477,000 on the airwaves to oppose an amendment to the state constitution that would redefine “person” to include the unborn. The ads say the move would effectively ban all abortion in the state. Proponents have aired no ads.

Other initiatives attracting interest from advocacy groups include:

· In Washington, television viewers have already been treated to more than 4,000 ads about a pair of conflicting ballot measures concerning background checks for gun purchases, with most of them coming from a group supporting expanded background checks. That organization — backed by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety fund, early Amazon investor Nick Hanauer and a handful of Microsoft executives, according to state records — spent an estimated $3 million on ads. The other side, backed by gun enthusiasts and sporting clubs, is trailing behind, with only about $58,000 spent.

· In North Dakota, the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society, among others, have lent their support to a measure that would dedicate some of the state’s oil tax revenues to land preservation. North Dakotans for Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks has ponied up nearly $485,400 for ads—more than double the cost for all the ads run by candidates for state offices this year. The group’s opponents have spent about $134,000 on ads so far.

· In Maine, voters are considering a ballot measure that would ban traps, bait and dog chases in bear hunting. The Humane Society has backed a group that has spent about $860,000 on ads favoring the ban so far. The other side, Maine’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Council, has spent about $713,000 on ads.

Attracting voters with pot and money

Marijuana is on the ballot in the District of Columbia and three states, spurring $4.5 million in ads. In Oregon, voters have watched some 1,825 ads worth more than $1 million run by supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana. That effort’s backers include the family of Peter Lewis, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate from Ohio and chairman of Progressive Insurance, who died in 2013. Another backer is the Drug Policy Alliance, an anti-drug-war nonprofit backed by liberal financier George Soros. (Soros’ Open Society Foundations are a financial supporter of the Center.)

The ads argue that legalizing the drug will allow police to focus on solving murders and finding missing children. Opponents have aired no ads so far, but a similar measure failed in Oregon in 2012. In Alaska, supporters of marijuana have aired just $8,210 worth of ads.

In Florida, opponents of a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana have spent roughly $3.2 million on ads. But the players in that fight might care less about marijuana than the governor’s race. Analysts say the marijuana legalization effort in Florida is really a tactic to get more young and left-leaning residents to turn out and vote for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Billionaire casino operator Sheldon Adelson has given $4 million to the anti-pot campaign, while the pro-pot side is backed more than $3.8 million from the personal injury lawyer John Morgan and his firm, which hired Crist after he left office. So far, however, the marijuana advocates have only spent about $195,000 on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data.

Ballot measures are a reliable way to motivate a party’s base. For instance, liberal groups helped get measures to raise the minimum wage on five states’ ballots this fall. Yet only Nebraska’s appears to have drawn TV ads: a paltry $79,000 worth.

“That totally makes sense,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for progressive groups and the communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America. “I wouldn’t count the lack of spending on ads to be indicative that they’re not incredibly useful in driving out votes.”

Sroka told the Associated Press that polls show overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage, including among independents and Republicans. Liberal activists looking to motivate voters can use the minimum-wage measures as a way to get perhaps reluctant voters talking and then tell them that the Democratic nominees for office also support higher wages.

“These ballot measures are great ways to talk to voters who might not want to talk to Democrats,” Sroka said.

Money talks but does it win?

For some corporations and national advocacy groups, investments in ballot measure ads have already paid off. This summer, oil companies won an August vote after dishing out nearly $900,000 to buy about 8,000 TV spots in Alaska to keep special tax breaks. “We need to stay in the game,” said a hockey coach in an ad that likened the sport to the oil industry.

In Michigan, manufacturers almost hit the $2.8 million mark on ad spending for an August ballot measure designed to eliminate a double tax on industrial property, while also rerouting an existing tax to fund local budgets. Though observers worried the measure was too confusing for pessimistic Michigan voters, who turned down every single initiative on the ballot in 2012, the manufacturers walked away with a victory.

But for others, ad spending was for naught. In Missouri, construction companies spent about $1.2 million on TV ads but still lost an August vote that would have authorized a sales tax to fund road construction.

The bulk of the measures, though, will come before voters on Nov. 4, so a flood of advertising is on the horizon. Then the implications of voters’ decisions will begin, affecting individuals’ lives and companies’ bottom lines.

In Hawaii, approval of the Maui County GMO ban would be a blow to Monsanto, which can produce up to four crops of corn seeds a year in Hawaii’s lush environment.

The state’s seed industry, including Monsanto’s corn, has grown rapidly in recent years, and last growing season was worth $217 million, outpacing sugar cane and pineapples. The corporate-backed Citizens Against the Maui County Farming Ban argues that small farms and big alike would be hurt by the ballot’s ban.

“More than 600 people would lose their jobs,” the group’s spokesman, Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, said in an email. “The purpose of the TV ads is to educate voters about the flawed, costly and harmful initiative.”

Natural remedies nurse Marsh doesn’t know whether her side can beat the Monsanto-backed ads; she said fliers against the GMO ban show up in her mailbox every day. But the ban advocates have a great volunteer network, she said, and at the very least they’ll get to make themselves heard. “We’re just trying to make them be held responsible for what they’re doing,” she said.

Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott contributed.

TIME 2014 Election

Hawaii Democratic Senate Primary Finally Ends As Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Concedes

Colleen Hanabusa
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, left, and a group of supporters do some last minute campaigning near the polling place on Aug. 15, 2014, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Marco Garcia—AP

Hanabusa announced Tuesday she will not challenge the results of the Senate primary in court

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa will not challenge the results of the close primary election between her and Sen. Brian Schatz, a race that came to an end an entire week after the originally scheduled primary.

In a statement published by several media outlets in Hawaii, Hanabusa said ,”though I will not be challenging the results of this election, I remain very concerned about the public’s confidence and trust in our election process.”

“I ask former colleagues and friends in the Hawaii State Legislature to explore what is necessary to ensure the people that their vote truly counts,” the statement continues. “I heard from many who feel strongly that they were disenfranchised from the voting process this election and I stand ready to support any collaborative effort to have those voices heard,” Hanabusa says.

Late last Friday the Associated Press called the race for Schatz, who beat Hanabusa by 1,769 votes following a rare one-day vote in two precincts in the rural Puna district of the Big Island of Hawaii. The district was ravaged by Tropical Storm Iselle, which downed trees and caused widespread power outages that kept voters from making it to the polls on Aug. 9.

Before last week’s election, Hanabusa filed a legal request to delay the election by a week so residents of Puna could focus on recovering from the storm, but a Hawaii judge denied the request. In interviews following the election, Hanabusa hinted that she might challenge the election in court.

On Tuesday, Schatz issued a statement congratulating Rep. Hanabusa for “waging a tough and spirited battle.”

“This election has been extraordinary from beginning to end. It took heart, teamwork and a belief that together we are making a real difference for our state and our country,” Schatz’s statement reads. “Now it is time for us to unite as we move forward to the general election.”

The election has been one of the toughest Democratic primaries this election season, but Schatz is expected to win the general election come November. A Republican hasn’t won a Senate election in Hawaii since 1970. Schatz and many Democrats believe his progressive stance, particularly his support for expanding Social Security, have and will carry him to victory in the general election.

TIME energy

Why Hawaii Wants Liquefied Natural Gas From the Mainland

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA)
The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) administers the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park (HOST Park). John S Lander—Getty Images

The Aloha state needs to say goodbye to its reliance on petrol and coal, but isn't quite ready to say hello to renewables

The Hawaiian archipelago is among the most isolated places on earth—it’s farther away from a major landmass than any other island chain on the planet. Lacking substantial indigenous fossil fuel resources, any nuclear power sector, or a robust renewables sector, the state is forced to import almost all of the energy it consumes in the form of petroleum and coal, which are easier to transport than other fossil fuels.

As oil prices have climbed in recent years, electricity prices in Hawaii are now between three and fives times higher than average electricity prices on the mainland. Hawaiians hope to change that with liquefied natural gas.

“These islands may soon be able to diversify their energy sources to include natural gas, because relatively low natural gas prices and new shipping technology may allow these islands to import liquefied natural gas (LNG),” writes Energy Information Administration Analyst Allan McFarland. With the development of standardized refrigerated shipping containers, Hawaiian utilities hope to import more LNG to the islands and push the price of electricity down.

But with its sunshine, Pacific breezes, and copious geothermal activity, the Aloha State seems like the perfect place to develop renewable energy resources — especially as fossil fuel resources are so scarce. So why is Hawaii hoping to import more LNG from the mainland instead of developing renewables?

The truth is, Hawaii is investing heavily in renewables. In 2008, the state legislature mandated that 40% of the electricity generated in the archipelago come from renewable sources by 2030. As a result, substantial investments have been made in solar, wind and biomass energy technologies, and with energy efficiency measures added to the mix, the state hopes to meet 70% of its energy needs from clean sources by 2030.

But the geography of the archipelago makes harnessing that energy uniquely difficult. Because the islands run on small electrical grids, rather than the massive regional systems that connect disparate parts of the U.S., the intermittency of wind and solar power—that is, their tendency to vary dramatically from one day to the next—is especially problematic.

Power plants that ramp up production to pick up the slack during lulls, or so-called “load-following” natural gas plants, could help, but “It’s hard to say whether load-following plants would be sufficient,” McFarland tells TIME. Scientists and policymakers hope energy storage technologies that can store excess energy produced on a sunny day to be deployed on a cloudy one might make a contribution. “Improved battery technologies would certainly help,” he said.

But until battery technology catches up, policymakers must rely on LNG to take a bite out of Hawaiian electricity prices — and, in the process, help the islands transition away from expensive petroleum and coal imports.

TIME Election 2014

Storm-Struck Hawaiians to Decide Senate Primary

Hawaii Primary
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa waves at drivers while campaigning for U.S. Senate in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 2014. Audrey McAvoy—AP

A special one-day election will decide whether Sen. Brian Schatz or Rep. Colleen Hanabusa secure the primary win in Hawaii

A pocket of voters in a remote area of Hawaii will cast the deciding ballots in one the country’s most tense Senate primary races during a one-day election on Friday.

About 6,800 eligible voters in the former hippie enclave Puna, a rural district in the easternmost area of the Big Island that is still reeling from Tropical Storm Iselle, essentially hold the fate of Democrats Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Brian Schatz in their hands. Due to power outages and blocked roads, voters set to cast ballots at Keonepoko Elementary School and Hawaiian Paradise Community Center found their polling stations closed during last Saturday’s primary. About 1,500 voters from the area already sent in absentee ballots and will not be able to vote on Friday, according to Hawaii News Now.

Polls will only open at the two locations, Keonepoko Elementary School and Hawaiian Paradise Community Center, Friday from 7 a.m. until 6p.m. It’s a rare move, offering a handful of voters a lot of power and focusing an inordinate amount attention on the often-forgotten district, as many residents said in interviews with the New York Times.

As of Sunday’s count, Sen. Schatz was 1,635 votes ahead of Hanabussa and the election will likely swing his way following Friday’s vote, though neither camp had given up on trying to sway this handful of voters as it came down the wire. Both candidates traveled to the Puna district this week, distributing water, ice and food to affected residents. More than 6,000 people are still without power, the Hawaii Electric Light company said Thursday.

State lawmakers have called the decision to hold elections amid the recovery insensitive and Rep. Hanabusa filed a lawsuit earlier this week to have the election delayed. On Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Greg Nakamura denied the motion and the election resumed as planned on Friday morning.

In a statement following the judge’s decision, Schatz’s campaign manager Clay Schroers said Schatz “continues to focus his energies on helping the people of Puna to recover.”

Hanabusa’s camp noted that while their recovery efforts would continue, the focus on Friday would be on the election. “We will continue to distribute food, water, fruit and ice to those in need. But we need people to be aware that there is an election tomorrow,” said campaign spokesman Peter Boylan, according to the Associated Press. “This campaign is not over, and we will continue to work very hard to earn every vote.”

Outside progressive groups poured money into helping Schatz, appointed by now-ousted Gov. Neil Abercrombie following the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inoyue, to help him keep the seat. On the other hand, Inoyue loyalists have bolstered support for Hanabussa, who the late Senator requested to succeed him on his deathbed. Regardless of who wins on Friday, a Democrat is projected to secure the seat in the Senate—the last time a Republican was elected to the Senate from Hawaii was Sen. Hiram Fong in 1970.

TIME 2014 Election

Hawaii Governor Ousted In Surprise Primary Loss

Neil Abercrombie, David Ige
Hawaii State Sen. David Ige, right, waves to his supporters an thanks Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, right, who promised his support, Aug. 9, 2014, in Honolulu. Eugene Tanner—AP

But Senate race too close to call

The Hawaii Democrat Party is making Republicans in the state look unified and organized. In a primary season dominated by GOP strife, Hawaii now has its own brand of drama. On Saturday, voters went to the polls and decisively voted out incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie. State Sen. David Ige got 66% of the vote to Abercrombie’s 30.9%. Abercrombie is the first sitting governor to lose a primary since 2010.

Abercrombie probably wasn’t helped by a pair of storms that have ravaged the islands just before voting. Abercrombie’s reputation for mismanagement and poor preparation were highlighted as Tropical Storn Iselle and Hurricane Julio passed through the islands, leaving the final week of campaigning and voting Saturday in chaos. He could’ve postponed the primary but chose not to. Ige isn’t a shoo-in, though. He now faces Republican Duke Aiona, a former lieutenant governor, and Independent Mufi Hannemann, a former Democratic mayor of Honolulu.

Speaking of ongoing tough races, the election to pick the Democratic nominee for the Senate will take weeks to sort out. Abercrombie appointed Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to the post after longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye passed in late 2012. But on his death bed, Inouye said he wanted Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him. Hanabusa, who also has the endorsement of Inouye’s widow, and Schatz, who has the endorsement of President Obama, are squaring off in the primary.

As of early Sunday, Schatz holds a narrow lead of 1,788, or 48.6% of the vote to Hanabusa’s 47.8%.

Remember that bad Kevin Costner movie, Swing Vote, where he discovers he’s the only person in America who can decide a presidential race? Yes, the one where every expert said that’s not possible because when polls close, they close. Well, apparently, Hawaii is about to experience firsthand a version of that movie. A tiny pocket of 8,000 eligible voters who were in the areas most severely impacted by the storms were given the ability to vote by mail in the coming weeks. The fate of the seat now rests in their hands — and on how much Hanabusa and Schatz can charm them.

TIME 2014 elections

Hawaii Faces Biggest Primary in Years Under the Threat of Twin Storms

Neil Abercrombie
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, center, speaks at the National Weather Service office on the campus of the University of Hawaii, Aug. 7, 2014, in Honolulu. Marco Garcia—AP

Storms make the close races for governor and Senate difficult to predict

There are a pair of dragons coming, and no one knows the chaos they will leave behind. In some Asian cultures, dragons control water and hurricanes. For many Hawaiians, the only U.S. state with a majority Asian population, the threat of Tropical Storm Iselle and Hurricane Julio means someone angered the dragons and must be punished. The question is: Who?

Some would say it was Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who defied dying Sen. Daniel Inouye’s wishes that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa be appointed to fill out the remainder of his term. Abercrombie instead appointed Lt. Gov. Brain Schatz, who is now facing Hanabusa in a special election Saturday to fill out the last two years of Inouye’s ninth term.

The fight has gotten personal and nasty. Schatz won the endorsement of President Barack Obama, but Hanabusa has benefitted from the support of the powerful Inouye machine —even Inouye’s widow has endorsed Hanabusa.

“His last wish was that Colleen serve out his term because he was confident in her ability to step into the Senate and immediately help Hawaii,” Irene Inouye said in May. “I am honoring one of his last requests, and look forward to supporting Colleen on the campaign trail.”

Schatz has outraised Hanabusa $4.9 million to $2.9 million. But polling, notoriously difficult in the fiftieth state where cellphones are more common than landlines, has been mixed. A Honolulu Star Advertiser poll done July 20-21 found Hanabusa leading Schatz by 8 points, 50% to Schatz’ 42%. But a Honolulu Civil Beat/MRG poll conducted July 24-28 came up with the opposite result: Schatz lead Hanabusa 49% to 41%.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie himself has come under fire for mismanagement and incompetence. He’s facing a serious primary challenge from State Sen. David Ige. Even if Abercrombie pulls out victory in the primary, he will be weakened ahead of a general election where he also faces a strong candidate, former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona.

Significant early voting has already been under way for weeks, and half of Hawaii’s voters in the 2012 primary voted early. Governor Abercrombie could postpone the primary, given the tropical storm, which hit Hawaii’s biggest island Thursday, and the hurricane, which is forecast to strike this weekend. That’s never happened before in the state’s history, but at least some candidates have asked their workers suspend campaigning to help with storm preparations. Besides, as the old Chinese proverb goes, it’s better to confront a dragon by the head, not its tail.

TIME weather

Hawaii Pummeled by Massive Storm, Thousands Without Power

Iselle downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm just before making landfall

Tropical storm Iselle made landfall on Hawaii’s biggest island Thursday evening local time, cutting down trees, ripping roofs off buildings and cutting power at a biodiesel plant, leaving 18,000 people without electricity.

“There were trees everywhere, the roads were completely blocked,” Bob Petrici, a woodsman living outside the town of Pahoa, tells TIME.

Iselle was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm just before it struck Hawaii, yet there was no debate over its ferocity. Thrusting rain and massive waves onto the island, Iselle is expected to release an even heavier downpour as it crashes into the towering Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa mountains. Meteorologists are warning of possible land- and rockslides.

“It’s absolutely a danger to people,” says Professor Steven Businger, principal investigator at Mauna Kea Weather Center. “You need to have a nice symmetric situation for a storm to be happy. The ocean is its energy source, so when it runs into a wall, it’s going to significantly disrupt the circulation of the winds.”

Petrici left his house when he smelled the smell of rotten eggs and received an alert that there had been an emergency steam release at the nearby geothermal power plant. Since he owns one of the only hydrogen-sulfide monitors in the area, he felt compelled to check the levels, but failed to reach the plant.

“I cut my way through, but when I came across a tree sagging over the power lines and heard the cracking from the forest, I decided to go back. I think it’s really odd that they didn’t shut down the plant, but my educated guess is that there’s no risk of a major incident.”

A civil defense operation center has been assembled in the major town of Hilo, gathering first responders, road crews, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Red Cross. Kevin Dayton, executive assistant to Mayor Billy Kenoi, at 10 p.m. local time said the storm’s impact so far has been less severe than expected, but that the worst could yet come.

“We don’t want to be too optimistic, but it’s looking good,” he said by phone. “We stay hunkered down and wait, and try to clear roads as fast as we can.”

After passing the island of Hawaii, Iselle is expected to skirt to the south of the archipelago, where a tropical-storm alert is currently in effect. Over the weekend, an even more powerful hurricane, Julio, is expected to barrel just to the north.

Hawaiians have been preparing throughout the week for Iselle’s onslaught, decimating shelves in grocery stores and supermarkets. Kawehi Cochrane, who runs a guesthouse in Hilo, made sure her guests left before the airport closed.

“I’m very nervous, my stomach’s churning,” she says. “My windows don’t have modern coating, and I’m afraid to lose roofing.”

As the evening progressed, however, Cochrane moved out onto her porch, and the familiar Big Island choir of coqui frogs could be heard over the phone line.

“It feels like Hilo now,” she said. “I think the worst is over, I feel safe.”

TIME weather

Earthquake Hits Hawaii as it Braces for Two Hurricanes

Hawaii Braces For Multiple Hurricanes
In this handout provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the GOES-East satellite, four separate weather system (L-R) Halong, Genevieve, Iselle, and Julio are tracked in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States Getty Images

No damages were immediately reported

A 4.5-magnitude earthquake rattled Hawaii’s Big Island on Thursday morning just as residents prepare to weather twin hurricanes.

There were no reports of damage yet, Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira told the Associated Press, and small quakes like this are “not uncommon.”

“We felt a pretty good shake,” Joanna Cameron, owner of the Kohala Club Hotel, told TIME of the tremor at 6:24 a.m. local time. Cameron’s hotel is located close to the epicenter, estimated 7 miles from Waimea. She plans to keep the hotel open throughout the storm despite numerous cancellations and the closures of nearby schools and businesses.

“We have an earthquake this morning,” she added. “Now the sun is coming out and we’ll have a hurricane at 4 p.m. No one is enjoying this.”

Hurricane Iselle is expected to strike the Big Island on Thursday night, followed by Hurricane Julio. Hawaii hasn’t been directly hit by a hurricane in 22 years and, according to ABC meteorologists, this will be the first to ever impact the Big Island.

When asked what’s next, Cameron replied: “Locusts.”

— Additional reporting by Jonathan D. Woods

TIME weather

Hawaii Is Preparing for a Double Hurricane Hit

Tropical Weather
This image provided by NOAA taken Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, shows Hurricane Iselle, center, and Hurricane Julio, right. AP

Hurricanes Iselle and Julio will be the first to directly strike Hawaii since September 1992

Two hurricanes currently churning in the Pacific Ocean are projected to pass over Hawaii this weekend.

Governor Neil Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation on Wednesday as hurricanes Iselle and Julio approached the island chain from the east.

The storms will be the first hurricanes to directly strike Hawaii since September 1992, when Hurricane Iniki battered several of the state’s major islands.

Forecasters expect Iselle to make landfall over the Big Island of Hawaii on Thursday afternoon local time, bringing with it maximum sustained winds of up to 70 m.p.h. and as much as a foot of rain. Julio will graze the island by Sunday morning, weakening as it passes.

“The Big Island will get the worst of it,” Eric Lau, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Honolulu, told TIME. “People should expect potential power outages, downed trees and flying debris. It’s not a common occurrence here.”

Hawaii’s largest island is home to nearly 200,000 of the state’s 1.4 million people, while some 75% of the population lives on Oahu, to the west, where Honolulu and the outlying area are currently under a tropical-storm warning.

The local press have described the impending weekend as a meteorological “one-two punch” — two storms, relatively weak on their own, that together will bring potentially dangerous conditions for as long as five days. Abercrombie’s proclamation will last until Aug. 15, allowing the state to turn to a $2 million fund earmarked for emergencies.

Residents are meanwhile buckling down at home. The Hawaii State Department of Education closed all schools on the Big Island and neighboring Maui on Thursday and Friday, while voters hustled to cast early ballots in Saturday’s primary election for governor and congressional representatives.

“Water and Spam have been flying off the shelves,” Honolulu resident Kory Johnson joked. (The state reportedly eats 7 million cans of the precooked meat each year.) “A lot of businesses are closing down — including the medical clinic I’m working for — and there are massive lines at Costco. People are stocking up.”

Many tourists, however, are vying to steer clear of the storms before they hit. To assist travelers in altering their plans, Hawaiian Airlines has temporarily waived its reservation-change fee — typically $30 to $200, depending on the route — as have other carriers. At the Wailea Marriott Resort and Spa in Maui, staff members have posted hurricane information flyers for visitors to consult, but their audience is dwindling: a hotel clerk who identified herself only as Alicia told TIME that a number of tourists have canceled their reservations in anticipation of the hurricanes.

She stressed, though, that the hotel had safety measures in place should the weather turn severe.

“We have an evacuation route planned on the island,” she said. “The safety of our guests is our first priority.”

TIME weather

Double Trouble: Hawaii Braces for Hurricanes Iselle and Julio

Hawaii Hurricane Iselle Julio
NBC News

90 mph wind on Wednesday

Two hurricanes are now taking aim at Hawaii.

The first, Hurricane Iselle, packed 90 mph wind on Wednesday as it chugged west toward the islands, and forecasters said that while it was expected to weaken, it could still be hurricane strength at landfall on Thursday.

The trailing system, Hurricane Julio, was upgraded from a tropical storm. It had winds of 75 mph, just strong enough to make the cut. While it could jog to the north, the projected path still had the storm hitting Hawaii on Sunday night.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie encouraged islanders to make an emergency plan, and people stocked up on bottled water and other supplies.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

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