Hawaii Early Voting Site Closure: Money Talks

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[Image by George Hurd via HawaiiNewsNow]

There’s an interesting story from Hawaii from over the weekend … on the Windward side of Oahu, Honolulu is closing down an early voting location at Pali Golf Club to focus instead on vote by mail. HawaiiNewsNow has more:

The city of Honolulu will not offer early walk-in voting at a Windward Oahu site this year, shifting more resources to handl[e] an increase in mail-in ballots, a move that does not sit well with Windward politicians.

During the last election season in 2012, the city opened three walk-in centers for voting before election days at City Hall, Kapolei Hale and at the city’s Pali Golf Course, off Kamehameha Highway on the Windward side.

Honolulu City Clerk’s officials said they spent about $50,000 for the Windward site, renting the Pali Golf Course banquet hall and paying 12 elections workers to handle two weeks of early voting before both the primary and the general elections.

About 8,700 people — many of whom live on the Windward side — cast votes at the Pali Golf Course last election year.

But the city will not open a Windward early voting site this year.

Not surprisingly, the article focuses on the disappointment of area politicans about the closure:

“We don’t want to close off places or options, we want to add them,” said State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R- Kailua, Kaneohe Bay Drive). “I don’t understand pulling away places where Windward citizens can go in and cast their vote. That really concerns me.”

“The problem is there will be about 8,000 or more people that probably won’t vote, because they won’t be able to do it walk-in. And they may choose not to do an absentee ballot,” added Thielen, who is running for her 13th term in the State House …

“Even if it’s designed to save a few dollars, you really can’t put a price on democracy,” said State Rep. Chris Lee (D – Kailua, Waimanalo). “We should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder. And that’s something that’s a real concern.”

If you read the story quickly, it appears that the City is closing down the Pali site exclusively because of the increase in vote by mail:

City Election Administrator Glen Takahashi said, “Were not picking on the Windward side. It’s part of a broader effort to encourage mail-in voting.”

Voting by mail has increased about 15 percent each election year on Oahu, he said.

Takahashi said the 12 staffers who would have worked at the Windward walk-in site will instead process mail-in absentee ballots. They will handle about 120,000 vote-by-mail envelopes, more than 12 times as many voters as the Kailua walk-in site had in the last election, he added.

“It’s about allocating resources and promoting voting by mail, which offers island-wide accessibility, versus regional accessibility,” Takahashi said.

Read a little deeper, though, and it’s clear this is a simple matter of the City looking to save costs it can’t afford to pay:

The clerk’s office will continue to operate its biggest early voting site at Honolulu Hale this year, where about 20,400 people cast ballots before the primary and general elections in 2012.

The city will also still have an early walk-in site at Kapolei Hale, where roughly 8,800 people voted two years ago in both elections.

The City Hall and Kapolei locations do not require payment of any rent, Takahashi said.

Even though the Pali Golf Course is owned by the city, its banquet facility is run by a concessionaire so the city must pay rent for its use six days a week for two weeks before both the primary and general, Takahashi said.

So, what initially looks like a story of a jurisdiction re-allocating voters from one mode of voting to another is really a story of an election office doing a cost-benefit analysis and deciding to save money on a popular (if not hugely so) early voting location.

Incumbents may complain about the cost of convenience to voters – but at least one is looking for a solution that will preserve a local site a friendlier cost to the city’s budget:

Windward City Councilman Ikaika Anderson said, “In a state like ours, where voter participation has been seriously lagging in recent years, we need to do what we can to make voting easier for people”…

Anderson, who’s running for Congress this year, said he will appeal to the City Clerk’s office and work with officials there to see if a rent-free city facility can be located on the Windward side and if fewer election workers could be used at an early voting site to save money.

Don’t be surprised if more of these stories emerge as Election Day approaches – but when they do, look closely for the real story … more often than not, I’m willing to bet the policy shift involved will be “not spending money we don’t have.”

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