Hawaii became the fourth state to move to an all vote-by-mail system with the Governor’s signature of an election bill late last month. USNews has more:
It’s easy to feel irrelevant when you’re almost 5,000 miles away from the Washington power center, when presidential candidates rarely, if ever, put you on their campaign calendar, when your state’s four electoral votes seem predestined for one party.
There are also the distractions of a year-round outdoor lifestyle, a multicultural population dominated by Asians and Pacific Islanders who may not feel all that connected with the U.S. mainland and a high cost of living that has many residents juggling family, long commutes and more than one job.
No wonder Hawaii’s voter turnout is consistently the lowest in the nation.
Democratic Gov. David Ige and the state Legislature hope to change that by making Hawaii one of only four states with all-mail balloting. A bill to do just that, starting with the 2020 primary, is now law, after Ige signed it [June 25].
“It is about being really focused on making participation in elections easier. It is about trying to use technology to get ballots to individuals so that they can participate,” Ige said during the bill-signing ceremony. “I think we all have seen the tremendous increase in the number of voters in our community that prefer to vote by mail. They can see their ballots at home and can vote in the privacy of their home.”
Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki, an Oahu Democrat, sponsored the bill. “I just felt that it was time for the Legislature to enact a statewide mail-in program,” he says. “Times have changed and the traditional polling places don’t often work out as well for voters and the election office.”
The Speaker and other supporters will be watching to see if vote by mail increases turnout:
Saiki was “pretty certain” Ige would sign the bill. He’s hopeful, but less certain, that it will increase turnout.
Hawaii’s League of Women Voters was more confident it would, based on the experience of the three states that have already implemented all-mail voting.
“It took six years to get this passed. We’re delighted, and we think it will be very successful,” says Janet Mason, legislative co-chairwoman of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii.
Mason predicts a 2% to 5% increase in voter turnout with the new system.
“That is the main reason the League supports it, but also voters want it and it saves money,” Mason says.
The state is looking forward to lower costs and elimination of issues associated with finding and staffing polling places:
State Chief Election Officer Scott Nago estimates the state would save about $750,000 per election cycle, based on the cost of Election Day officials working at the polls. All four county elections administrators also support the change.
Hawaii’s election would be all-mail in that every voter will be mailed a ballot, whether they signed up for mail-in ballot or not. Election centers will also be instituted where mailed ballot drop-off, same-day voter registration, disabled voting and general walk-in voting will be accommodated. Voters can also mail the completed ballot back postage-paid.
Hawaii holds its primary election on a Saturday and declares the general election day a state holiday, enabling it to use the public schools as polling places. Still, the county elections administrators frequently struggle to find enough volunteers to work the polls, and ballot shortages and late-opening polls aren’t all that uncommon.
Some lawmakers aren’t completely sold on VBM’s benefits – and even some supporters think there’s still room for improvement:
The research isn’t convincing House Minority Leader Gene Ward, an Oahu Republican who ended up voting yes with reservations on the bill. Two of the House’s five Republicans voted no. It passed unanimously in the state Senate.
Research has been conducted in other states, but not Hawaii. Ward says he would probably have voted no but constituents in his district want it.
“Show me data. Show me metrics. I don’t see data that says that, but everyone jumps on the bandwagon,” Ward says. “We do what’s trending. The data should do the talking, not the politicians.”
Opponents are concerned about an increase in fraud and voter intimidation, and worry there will be more ballot errors without a voting machine to reject spoiled ballots, giving the voter another opportunity to have their vote count.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, an Oahu Democrat, sponsored the companion bill. He’s also optimistic about increasing voter turnout, but he’d also like to see a more cohesive election system. Currently, the system is a blend of mail-in ballots by request, early voting at election centers and precinct voting on Election Day.
“We’re running three separate voting systems. The ones at schools are expensive and problematic,” Rhoads says. “It’s not a silver bullet for voter turnout but I hope it helps some.”
It will be interesting to see if Hawaii’s new system – which seems to be working well in places like Colorado – has a comparable impact in the Aloha State. I’ll be especially curious whether the promised non-turnout benefits like cost savings and ease of administration are immediately apparent or if it will take time for the state to find its legs under the new approach. Either way, stay tuned …