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Name in the News: Scott Nago prepares for Hawaii’s first all-mail election

                                Scott Nago, chief elections officer for the Hawaii Office of Elections, posed for a portrait on March 25.
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Scott Nago, chief elections officer for the Hawaii Office of Elections, posed for a portrait on March 25.

For all the reasons initially put forward in support of all-mail voting — increased voter turnout, convenience, insulation from digital hacks — its advantages in a pandemic were not on Scott Nago’s mind, or anyone else’s. Now, of course, they are.

“I think other jurisdictions are looking toward going towards mail because of the virus,” said the state’s chief elections officer.

Nago and his staff are still ensconced in the Office of Elections headquarters in Pearl City, as always, because there’s much to do according to the current plan. There could be unanticipated changes, but for now, he said, it’s full speed ahead. Hawaii’s primary election is Aug. 8; the general is Nov. 3.

The only issue is public education, or at least that element that involved community events, he said.

“We did have a lot of things planned that because of the virus, we won’t be able to do,” Nago added. “We do have television, radio, digital ads planned that we were still going forward with.”

Nago, 46, is married and holds a University of Hawaii political science degree. He didn’t foresee this career track but has been at the office since 1998, his second job out of college.

There have been rough spots in the past that nobody in the office would remember fondly, in particular a ballot shortage in 2012 that led to a lawsuit and an investigation, long since resolved. At least for the moment, he said, things are looking to be on the right pathway.

“Everyone wants to be where we are currently,” he said, referencing the all-mail voting, “so I think we’re in a good place.”

Question: Is the coronavirus pandemic factoring into your plans or publicity campaigns for Hawaii’s first vote-by-mail election? Do you think avoiding crowded polling stations will be a draw?

Answer: We continue to follow the effects of the coronavirus on our community, and currently there are no changes to the 2020 election schedule. Our messaging to voters for the upcoming elections is focused on the transition to elections by mail.

All voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail and no traditional polling places will be opened on Election Day. We would encourage voters to vote and return their ballot by mail.

Q: The hope was for vote by mail to improve turnout. Do you believe that will happen? Why or why not?

A: Yes, we believe vote by mail will improve turnout because automatically receiving your ballot makes voting easier and more convenient.

Vote by mail puts a ballot into the hands of every registered voter, and with our postage-paid return envelopes, there is little reason to not vote. Voting can be done from the comfort of your home when you have the time rather than on a specific day.

The convenience of not having to travel to a polling place and potentially take time away from work or other activities hopefully encourages more voters to participate in our elections.

Q: What is the total budget for this election cycle? Is it more or less than the last one? And does it include any contingency funds for unexpected problems for this launch?

A: The projected cost of the 2020 elections is $6,420,531 shared between the state and counties, compared to $6,477,477 for the 2018 elections. Expenses have shifted from paying Election Day officials who staff the polling places on Election Day to supplies and services, like envelopes, mailing house services to assemble voters’ mail ballot packets, as well as postage.

While there is no contingency fund in the budget, federal funds are available in the event the coronavirus impacts our elections.

Q: What’s being done to address the number (111,000) of outdated voter registrations?

A: We continue to send election mailings, pursuant to federal law, confirming their voter registration. We are identifying these voter records now because ballots are not forwardable. Voters can update their registration at any time to ensure they receive their ballot for the upcoming elections.

If a voter has not received the election mailings, we would ask that they check their registration online at olvr.hawaii.gov or by contacting the Office of Elections at (808) 453-VOTE (8683).

The election mailings are also used to maintain the accuracy and integrity of the voter registration rolls. First, an election mailing is sent out to every registered voter in the statewide database.

If USPS is unable to deliver a card as addressed, it is returned, and we then send a second notification. This second notification is forwardable by mail and requests for the voter to update their registration.

If a voter is mailed a second notification card and fails to update their registration within the next two election cycles, they will be removed from the voter registration rolls. …

One of our messages is that if you didn’t receive the mailings, to please contact us or re-register. We’re trying to get people to re-register like they update their utilities, they update their driver’s license. …

Q: Based on the experience in other states: Can you anticipate what percentage of voters will return their ballot early, and how many are likely to wait until shortly before the deadline?

A: With the limited number of elections conducted by mail in Hawaii, as well as our experience with absentee mail ballots, we anticipate an influx of voted ballots within the first week that ballots are sent, and a second influx of voted ballots within the last three days before the election.

Many voters do wait until shortly before the deadline to return their ballot. However, we recommend voters mail their ballot at least three days prior to the election to ensure it is received by their County Elections Division by the close of voting at 7 p.m. on Election Day.

For those voters returning their ballot within three days of the election, they should drop it off in person at a voter service center or place of deposit.

Q: How confident do you feel that you have allowed for enough service centers statewide? How did you settle on the number to be established on each island?

A: Voter service centers are established and operated by each county as they have similarly operated early walk-in voting locations in previous elections. …

The voter service centers will be opened 10 business days prior to the election and 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on Election Day. Voter service centers support the needs of voters, such as dropping off their voted ballot to ensure it is received by the deadline, enabling accessible in-person voting, or obtaining a replacement ballot packet.

In addition to voter service centers, the counties are establishing multiple places of deposit positioned in various communities for voters to drop off their voted ballot. These places of deposit are opened five business days prior to the election to ensure voted ballots are received by the close of voting at 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Q: Are there any lessons learned by early adopters of this system — Washington or Oregon, for example? What is key to success?

A: The circumstances of every state’s election are unique. For example, in Hawaii, responsibilities are divided, with the state printing and counting ballots and providing voter education, and the counties mailing and receiving ballots, operating voter service centers and places of deposit, and maintaining voter registration.

Fortunately, we already have experience with voting by mail as the number of voters who cast their ballot prior to Election Day has exceeded the number of voters who cast their ballot at a polling place since the 2014 elections.

The key to success in any election is in the preparation and timing. Since elections by mail was passed in May 2019, we have been working with the counties and stakeholders to coordinate our messaging and ballot mailing process.

In July 2019, we started sending election mailings to voters to alert people to the changes being implemented and to determine who needs to update or change their registration.

This month voters will also receive a signature-capture card mailing asking for voters’ current signatures. This signature will be used to confirm each voter’s identity as their voted mail ballot is received. Our messaging is timed to coincide with the upcoming election dates and deadlines.

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