Gov. David Ige has signed into law a historic bill making Hawaii the fourth state in the country to switch to a universal vote-by-mail elections system — a process that will start with the 2020 election.
In a compromise to ensure the bill would pass both houses of the Legislature, the switch to all-mail voting will begin here on Kauai, where it will be introduced two years from now. If Kauai’s testbed experience is positive, the entire state will switch to universal vote-by-mail beginning in 2022.
Ige took the action on Tuesday, but his office did not issue a news release or hold a signing ceremony as is often the case with high-profile legislation.
The new system is intended to blunt Hawaii’s appalling reputation as “the state that doesn’t vote,” as one CNN commentator described its record. After the switch, voters will still be able to cast ballots in person if they do not receive ballots in time or simply choose not to vote by mail. Here on Kauai, there will be just one location for in-person voting, similar to early voting practices that have been in place for several years.
Voting in person at local precinct locations will no longer occur. Elections officials emphasized that the changes do not affect this year’s primary and general elections, which will continue to utilize multiple polling places islandwide.
For 10 days before the 2020 election, Kauai County will open a voter service center, offering early voting and same-day registration. The center will continue to operate until the official hour the polls close on election day. It will, among other things, accept in-person delivery of ballots.
With this legislation, Hawaii joins Colorado, Oregon and Washington as the only states to make the switch so far.
On Friday, Common Cause Hawaii and the League of Women Voters of Hawaii issued a joint statement applauding the legislation, as well as Kauai County’s role in its introduction.
“By implementing vote-by-mail for Kauai County, Hawaii is taking action to improve voter participation in the political process and stimulating our democracy,” said Corie Tanida, the Common Cause executive director. “We are committed to advocating for modernized election procedures until such reforms are available statewide.”
Janet Mason, legislative committee co-chair for the League of Women Voters, echoed the thoughts.
“We are happy this long-awaited approach is beginning,” she said. “We look forward to a successful Kauai pilot.”
Rep. Nadine Nakamura, of Kauai’s 14th district, was a key proponent of the new legislation. She summarized her views this way in a floor speech shortly before the new bill passed: “In 2016, 56 percent of the voters on Kauai voted early or used an absentee ballot in the general election. Only 44 percent voted at the polls on Election Day. Further, 85 percent of the voters on Kauai who requested an absentee ballot voted.”
Nakamura’s perspective was echoed by Rep. Dee Morikawa, who holds the 16th district House seat.
“It is time for this to happen,” Morikawa said. “Kauai’s pilot program will help to address some logistical concerns that a few legislators had, so I believe it is better to begin small. I just wish we had done this two years ago.”
Morikawa was instrumental in enacting a bill in 2012 that switched Niihau, with its tiny number of registered voters and remote location, to all-mail voting.
Numbers have dwindled
Statewide, Hawaii has seen voter participation dwindle steadily since statehood in 1959. In that year, more than 93 percent of registered voters cast ballots. But by 2016’s general election, participation statewide dropped to 58.4 percent. The 2014 election was even worse, at 52.3 percent. The pattern reflects typically lower turnouts for off-year balloting.
The numbers have been similar on Kauai, where turnout started out at 94 percent at statehood but declined to 61.4 percent in 2016.
“The majority of voters on Kauai want the convenience that our current absentee mail-in ballot system offers,” Nakamura said. “Residents like the convenience of voting early, have additional time to assess the candidates and the issues and not feel rushed to make a decision in the voting booth.”
At the Hawaii Office of Elections in Honolulu, a spokesperson welcomed the new system and Kauai’s role in it.
“We see the legislation as a response to the upward trend in absentee voting,” she said. “Since the 2014 elections, more voters have voted an absentee ballot than at the polling place on Election Day,” the spokesperson said.
“Election officials have always supported bills that would make the voting process accessible and convenient. As the 2018 primary election is less than a month away, our focus has been on implementing the upcoming elections. After the 2018 elections, we will work with the County of Kauai to implement this pilot project.”
Voting officials in Colorado, which implemented universal vote-by-mail elections in 2013, said their state did not employ Hawaii’s piecemeal strategy of having one county conduct a trial before the concept went statewide. But the cautious approach here may make sense, they said.
“We had an election in November that year and were required to implement this system immediately,” recalled Dwight Shellman, of the elections department in the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. “It honestly was difficult. This new election model requires a lot of different technology. But we got through it. We cobbled stuff together.”
Extra security is added bonus
Colorado, Shellman said, has also found several collateral benefits to the new system. Chief among them is that collecting physical ballots in one central place allows the paper records to be maintained in exactly the same order in which they are fed into electronic scanning equipment.
If there is a challenge or demand for a recount, he said, this careful preservation of not just the ballots, but the order in which they were tabulated, makes the vote as impervious as possible to aggressive audits. Nationally, because voting by mail preserves paper records, many observers see in it greater general immunity to vote tampering and other irregularities that plagued the 2016 presidential election after evidence surfaced of Russian interference and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump.
Although Hawaii has not emerged as the object of direct Russian involvement or campaign collusion, the new system will introduce vote integrity enhancements — if only for Kauai — in the next presidential election. Already, many election officials fear 2020 U.S. voting will be in the crosshairs of Russian manipulators.
Colorado, Shellman said, analyzed success of its new system in a unique way. It computed the proportion of all voting age residents who actually voted. This differs from more conventional measures, of the proportion of registered voters who show up at the polls.
By that standard, in 2010, Colorado saw 52.1 percent of its eligible adults actually vote, but by 2016, the proportion had surged to 76.7 percent — the highest election participation rate in the country, Shellman said.
Erich Ebel, spokesperson for the Washington Secretary of State’s office, however, cautioned against expecting dramatic immediate improvements in voter participation.
“Significance-wise, this is a big deal,” Ebel said. “The logistical issues of conducting two styles of elections — polling place and absentee ballots — will be reduced greatly. This should save the state a bunch of money. Practicality-wise, this will require a strong relationship with the U.S. Postal Service.
“Hawaii typically has a very low turnout, so voting-by-mail could drive turnout up a bit. However, we think it’s doubtful that it’s going to statistically drive up turnout in huge ways. We don’t see that here.”
Here on Kauai, Makaala Kaaumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui, an environmental advocacy organization, said she still has an emotional preference for voting in person, but accepts the new system as an improvement. Kaaumoana worked as a polling place volunteer for many years.
“I will certainly miss the community spirit of Election Day at the village polling place,” she said. “You saw your friends, pulled the lever, part of the democratic process. It’s another step in removing us from our government. But maybe more people will vote.”
Kilauea resident Bill Troutman, who has served as an election day poll worker for 20 years and is a fixture of volunteer organizations throughout the North Shore, was also optimistic.
“I’m hoping it improves voter participation,” he said. “It’s disappointing how uninvolved our voters are. Only about half who can register do so. And only half of them vote. So it’s 30 percent of eligible voters who are actually casting ballots.”
Troutman echoed statements from county officials about how recruiting poll workers has become more challenging with each election cycle as laws have changed, procedures tightened and incidents of alleged irregularities increased.
What election volunteers are asked to do, he said, “is like having an intricate government office and running it for one day a year, and doing that with volunteers. There’s gotta be a better way.”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident.