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Bernice Mau

Honolulu's city clerk has got eyeballs on the ballots as election day nears

By Vicki Viotti

LAST UPDATED: 2:09 a.m. HST, Nov 2, 2012

It's helpful to have good eyesight when you work in elections at the Office of the City Clerk. Bernice Mau, Honolulu's city clerk, has a permanent staff of six in the agency's elections division, which hires a few dozen temps to get them through the election season.

And one of the tasks is checking signatures. The county elections offices handle early walk-in voting as well as the vote-by-mail absentee ballots. When those ballots come in, the signature on each of the outer envelopes has to be checked against a database that has stored the images of signatures captured from the voter's ballot application or their voter registration forms.

"We're eyeballing it," said Mau, 60. "We don't have that technology yet where it's scanned in."

As of early this week, well over half of the absentee ballots had already been returned, so the staff was deep in that eyeballing chore. Going back some years, when the office was handling only some 35,000 absentee ballots, all processing was done by hand. These days, some handling tasks are automated. They have to be. Early voting has increased year after year, and now the load is up to around mailed-out 125,000 ballots.

Mau started working at Honolulu Hale in 1984, as a City Council committee aide (the clerk's office, as well as being the headquarters for Oahu's voter registration and early voting, also provides clerical services to the Council). She became deputy clerk in 2008 and said she enjoys the job. Most of it, anyway.

"I'll be honest," Mau said with a smile. "Everything that I have to do as the city clerk, I think elections is the hardest, the most frustrating. Because it's such a short period of time; so many things can go wrong. It's really thankless. The public hardly ever says thank you, but as soon as one little thing goes wrong they're complaining!"

Sending a thank-you card after Tuesday's Election Day would be a nice gesture, it seems.

QUESTION: What is the focus of your job, besides elections?

ANSWER: We have two main things that we do. One is the elections, running the county elections; the other is we service the City Council. … We service all their committee meetings and the full Council meetings. We keep all the records, legislation, the bills, resolutions. …
Probably back in the 1960s was the last elected city clerk. Somewhere around that time there was a charter amendment that put the city clerk under the City Council, so my position is appointed by the City Council.

Q: Are you relieved that it’s no longer an elected office?

A: Oh, I would not be here. (Laughs) I would not run for office. But it is an appointed position. I can’t remember when, maybe back in 2003 or so, by ordinance they gave every director — the city clerk is like a director of one of the agencies — a six-year term by appointment. So unless we do something horribly wrong, we keep our positions for six years.

Q: Where are you in your six-year term?

A: I became permanent in July 2009, so I’m in my fourth year.

Q: You oversee the front end of the election process on Oahu?

A: We do voter registration, we do all the absentee mail, and we do the early walk-in sites. …

Q: Absentee voting has been increasing, right?

A: It’s been increasing. And in 2010 is when we were first allowed to do permanent absentee, which means once they fill out that application form they can always get the ballot absentee. … As people found out that they can do absentee, they’ve been registering. But you know, I think the “permanent” made it so that once they gave it to us, they don’t have to apply for it every election, which made it much easier. …

Q: What do you think of the critique that elections should be held all on one day?

A: I hear some people who don’t like it. One of the criticisms I heard of the mail balloting is that “it goes to the home, and who knows who’s voting?” So-and-so’s voting for their parent, or husband’s voting for the wife — you know, that kind of stuff.

Q: And what’s your response to that critique?

A: My response would be, I guess it could happen. But it’s up to the voter. It’s like when a husband and wife comes to the polls, and both of them go into the booth.

Q: You don’t stop that, right?

A: Oh, no! It’s up to them. I remember personally my dad, when I was growing up. Before they went to the polls, my mom would sit down and my dad would be telling my mom, “OK, these are the people you should vote for.” (Laughs) It just depends on the family. I don’t consider that fraud; it’s not like one person is collecting mail ballots for people they don’t know and they’re voting on it and turning it back in. It’s a family thing. …

Q: Do the critics accept that explanation?

A: I really haven’t been asked that question in my work setting. I’ve been asked that question by friends and family members, and that’s my answer that I give to them. …
What’s important to note is that, for the Office of the City Clerk, we just administer the law; we can’t advocate either way.

Q: Do you ever get any calls about voter fraud?

A: Sometimes we get called and people, they think we’re the ones who go after people. We can only go after a voter registration, if someone wants to challenge someone’s voter registration, like, “They don’t live in that area.” Somebody says, “I suspect some politician or some candidate is coercing people to vote for them,” we can’t investigate that; (we) usually refer them to the attorney general’s office.

Q: What proportion of the votes come from early voting?

A: In 2010, in the general election, we had 44.3 percent who voted absentee. That’s the highest. Just this past primary, it was 48 percent, on Oahu. … In the 2010 general, we mailed out 105,000 pieces of mail. Our figures, as of yesterday, is about 125,000. It keeps growing.

Q: What do you think of the prospect of doing an all-mail election, like Oregon does?

A: Our office itself, we did three special elections, and we did it all mail. … two in 2009 and then 2010.

Q: How did that go?

A: Wonderful … it works. But I don’t know how it would work if they said everybody has to vote by mail.

Q: Is that because there still are people who like the original way?

A: Yeah, they like to come in and they like to go to their own community and vote on Election Day.

Q: Or is it that they want to wait until the last possible minute in case new information comes in on candidates?

A: Sure.

Q: For some people, isn’t there also the question of trusting the mail system?

A: Yes, and that's something we don't have any control over. Once we put it in the mail system, we have all our faith that the whole process is going to get it to you. A lot of times people, they move and they don't tell us, so the packet comes back because it’s not forwardable. If they put their mail on hold because they go on vacation, if it’s around the time that we mail out the ballots, it comes right back to us. It doesn't stay. It will only go to that address that’s on the envelope; it’s the address they provide to us.

Q: So, if the ballot doesn't arrive, what happens then?

A: I had one today. They call our office, and they'll say “I haven't received my ballot,” and we'll look in our files to see when the ballot was pulled and mailed, and if it was two weeks since it went out, we’ll issue them a new ballot.

Q: But if it’s too close to the election and they decide to come to a walk-in site, do they get a provisional ballot?

A: No. … Your file will show whether your ballot was received. If your ballot was received, then we know you mailed it back and we won’t let you vote. But if it wasn't received, then we’re going to void that mail ballot and then we let you vote there. Same thing if you went to the polls on Election Day.

To me it’s pretty foolproof on voting twice, but a lot of the responsibility is on the voter. … You need to call the office and say “I didn't get it” so we can see that you get it, or show up at one of our walk-in sites. …

We do have to pay for the cable hookup (at those sites). There’s a cost involved. So, we’re really trying to get people to embrace the mail, so we don’t have to go to this cost and hire all these temps to work (at the walk-in sites).

Q: Do you think we’ll go the route of Oregon and have all mail-in voting?

A: Every year, the Legislature has some kind of legislation about all-mail, or they discuss it with the elections community. But they haven’t gone and said “all mail” yet. If they do go all-mail statewide … they need to give us some time to ramp up to it.

Do we have the resources here to handle statewide mail? You’re talking about inserter machines.

Right now we have Hagadone (Printing Co.) helping us. Now can Hagadone or other printers or a mail processing plant handle the whole state? All kinds of things have to be considered. … It sounds like a simple thing to do. But it’s not. It’s the processing. At one point we used to process everything in-house, manually. Fold, stuff, seal. …

We have to rent a space every election year to do all that processing, when the ballots all come back.

We don’t have space here to house all the ballots. … We have to validate that they came back and have to check the signatures. That’s all done at our remote site. …

Q: Do you find yourself in the position of lecturing your own family on their duty to vote?

A: Oh, yeah. That’s why when the permanent (absentee voter application) came out, I brought home the forms to all of them. Every single one of them vote absentee now.

They love it.

I have two daughters. They’re in their 20s. This year my oldest daughter, she’s 26, this was the first year she didn’t even ask my advice. So I think she finally grew  up. She just took her ballot and she said, “I’ll just vote my own.” My youngest is still, “Oh, Mom, who should I vote for?” I’ll be honest. It happens. But my oldest, I don’t know who she voted for. I told her, “Just vote.”

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