Allowing Hawaii voters to cast their ballots by mail on a permanent basis is important in achieving a greater turnout at lower cost. The system to be used in this year’s election should be seen as a possible step toward all vote-by-mail elections.
Hawaii was embarrassed in 2008 by scoring the nation’s lowest voter turnout in the election of Hawaii-born Barack Obama as president, with only 51.8 percent of voters casting ballots. This May, Hawaii’s first all-mail special election for U.S. representative in the state’s 1st Congressional District resulted in a 54 percent turnout, 32 percent higher than the 2003 special election of Ed Case in the 2nd Congressional District.
As of last year, Hawaii was among 29 states allowing some form of no-excuse absentee voting and is now among five states that allow citizens to become permanent absentee voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hawaii’s Legislature approved the system in 2008 over Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto, but a bill to require statewide all-mail election failed in last year’s session.
The governor expressed concerns that the permanent absentee ballot could result in fraud because it lacks a means for verifying that the intended voter was the person who mailed in the vote. That should no longer be an issue since the 2009 federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires states to be equipped with reliable ballot tracking technology.
The Honolulu administration has sent out permanent absentee voting applications to the state’s 250,000 registered voters and other counties also will reach out to their voters. Applicants must provide their Social Security number and sign the form. Election workers are to compare the signature accompanying the mailed-in vote to the one on file from the application.
Oregon initiated all-mail elections in 2000 and appears to have avoided serious fraud by leveraging signature verification and ballot tracking, while increasing turnout by 7 percent in previous years to 67.6 percent in 2008.
Voting by mail follows a trend in that direction in Hawaii.
Thirty-eight percent of votes were cast by absent ballot in the 2008 general election, compared with only 19.7 percent in the 2000 election.
In Oregon, the cost of elections has gone down from $1.81 to $1.05 per voter since the move to all-mail balloting. However, the Los Angeles city clerk warned last year that an all-mail election would entail the prohibitive cost of hiring 480 new employees to process ballots. Hawaii is closing only about one-fourth of polling places, so cost-saving in this year’s election seems doubtful.
This year’s primary and general elections in Hawaii should provide an indication of whether voter turnout is enhanced by permanent absentee ballots and the cost would be affordable if the state were to move to all-mail voting. The Legislature should visit the issue in its next session.