Editorial: Prepare voters for all-mail balloting
Hawaii leaders have been talking for years about the state’s transition to an all-voting-by-mail election system.
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Hawaii leaders have been talking for years about the state’s transition to an all-voting-by-mail election system. That’s why many likely will be surprised by how many voters are still in the dark about the brave, new world that’s now just months away.
Act 136 became law following the 2019 Legislature, expanding the vote-by-mail statute from the pilot phase (initially to have begun on Kauai only next year) to statewide elections, beginning with the 2020 primary in August.
Like several other changes that preceded it — liberalized absentee voting options, early voting, same-day voter registration — this one was meant to make voting as easy as possible. Given a voter-turnout percentage that has sagged in recent years, making ballot access easier is the right policy for Hawaii.
But how much help do voters need? That’s the burning question and, at least for the initial transitional year, it seems the answer should be: more than the state Office of Elections is anticipating.
At a minimum, the agency tasked with coordinating this experience should contemplate opening more “voter service centers,” the stations that will replace the old polling places, than they’ve got planned.
At a legislative briefing in November, Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago told lawmakers that staff met voters at a community meeting who weren’t entirely clear on the concept.
“A lot of voters didn’t realize that ‘elections by mail’ meant that there will be no polling place and that a ballot will be sent to you,” Nago said at the briefing.
That’s a distressing observation. Confusion may have arisen because many are accustomed to having the mail-in option, along with the traditional practice of voting at precinct polls on the day itself.
Still, that early reaction should serve as a wakeup call to elections officials, a signal that among even lifelong voters are those who rarely track such changes and will be unaware.
Current plans are for eight voter service centers statewide. These are locations to give in-person help with voter registration and other issues, and to cast an electronic ballot for walk-ins once voting begins.
This is a presidential election year, with several local races of equally intense interest, so thousands additional voters are anticipated, said Sandy Ma, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Hawaii.
There should be more centers for servicing these people, at least for the first all-mail voting election, she rightly said, because there are bound to be many used to voting at some 280 polling sites, who are unaware of changes, all the way up to Election Day.
Other states with all-mail voting have guidance on the points of service required. The Colorado law, for example, requires that each of the least-populous counties (under 10,000 active voters) will have one center, larger counties getting up to three on Election Day.
That ratio may not make sense in a state with generally small, geographically compact counties, but having only the Kapolei and downtown centers planned for Oahu seem inadequate.
And on Hawaii island — hardly a compact county — splitting the burden between Hilo and Kailua-Kona locations could suppress the vote among those who discover at the last minute that a drive across the Big Island is their only route to casting a ballot.
All that said, the responsibility of delivering a successful election doesn’t lie solely with the state agency. The Office of Elections needs to gear up adequately for its first statewide foray into voting by mail.
But Hawaii’s voters, long served by increasingly easy ballot access, need to pay attention to the unfolding changes — and then do their civic duty as Americans.