Voters for the first time can sign up this year for permanent absentee voting.
Many voters have switched to absentee voting over the past decade for the convenience of casting ballots by mail or at drop-off sites. The trend has helped change the dynamic of political campaigns by forcing candidates to spread their get-out-the-vote operations over several weeks instead of building toward Election Day.
Thirty-eight percent of voters statewide voted by absentee ballot in the 2008 general election, according to the state Office of Elections, compared with 19.6 percent in the 2000 general election.
The Office of Elections, struggling because of the state’s budget crisis, has opted to close 97 polling places this year, mostly on Oahu. The precinct closings could prompt more voters to choose to vote by absentee ballot rather than go to precincts farther from their homes.
"I’m hoping that it will encourage more participation," said Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun (D, South Hilo-Puna-Kau), one of the co-sponsors of the permanent absentee voting bill passed by the state Legislature in 2008 over Gov. Linda Lingle’s objections.
Under the law, voters can permanently vote absentee unless they miss both a primary and general election or do not update their address information. The privilege also expires if voters register to vote in another county, lose their voting rights or are otherwise disqualified.
Until this year, voters had to apply for absentee voting before each election.
Glen Takahashi, Honolulu election administrator, said the city found that about 60 percent of people who have been applying for absentee voting had applied in previous elections.
The city has sent out mailers with permanent absentee voting applications to about 250,000 registered voters. Election officials on the neighbor islands are also reaching out to voters. Kauai plans to send applications to all registered voters. Maui will target many of the voters who voted absentee in 2008.
Jean Aoki, a former legislative liaison of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, said she supports efforts to increase voter participation. But she said she is personally concerned about permanent absentee voting for seniors, particularly those who live in nursing homes. If a senior becomes incapacitated, for example, his or her ballot could be filled out by a family member or caregiver.