Hawaii’s new vote-by-mail system is finally making its debut in advance of the Aug. 8 primary election, under circumstances that should enhance its chances of success.
One, it’s an exciting election, with several nonpartisan races to be narrowed, or won outright: mayoral races — Honolulu’s has a crowded slate — and numerous council contests replacing prominent incumbents at each county. These are positions of considerable power and influence over the pocketbook issues that affect most people.
And then there’s the global coronavirus pandemic. If there was ever a time when a mail-in ballot makes perfect sense, it’s this year.
Enacted last year for a full 2020 rollout, the vote-by-mail statute essentially expands the islands’ long-established absentee voter protocols statewide. The idea was that making casting a ballot as convenient as possible would draw in more voters off the sidelines.
Now the notion of avoiding a trek to a polling station ought to appeal to the already dependable voters — seniors — as well as those who find in-person voting a chore.
Older residents are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, so they especially should find comfort in their ballots arriving in the mail (many already have received them). It means they can avoid yet another magnet for a crowd capable of exchanging an infectious disease.
On top of that, this election season brings a lot of excitement. Hawaii won’t vote in the big presidential election until the general, Nov. 3; nominees have been chosen by registered party members at preference polls earlier this year.
But in the partisan races, such as legislative contests, the primary election is usually where to find the heat of competition. Given the partisan alignment of the state’s leadership, most of the contests are on the Democratic side of the ballot.
As always, it’s an open primary. Voters can choose candidates all in one single party or another, whether they’re members or not, but mixing votes across party lines will get the ballot disqualified.
Another reminder from the state Office of Elections: Ballots don’t count unless they arrive for counting by 7 p.m. Election Night. The fact that they may have been postmarked Aug. 8 won’t matter.
Mailing them as soon as possible would be a good idea, according to the office, so the postal service won’t be overwhelmed.
If voters feel inclined to hang onto the ballot more than a day or so into August, they would be wise to bring it themselves to one of the deposit sites (elections.hawaii.gov/voter-service-centers-and-places-of-deposit).
That online list also includes the limited number of voter service centers (two each on Oahu and Hawaii island, one each on other islands). Those are the places where, starting July 27, voters can go in person either to register or cast a ballot using an electronic polling booth.
The elections office has had time to prepare, adjusting its voter-education strategies once COVID-19 became a reality. Rather than have town meetings, for example, most of the schooling has happened online and in media advertisements.
One advantage of that is the capacity of the Facebook page and agency website to archive live video presentations and other tutorial material (www.facebook.com/elections808). Those would be worth some review over the next weeks as people consider their votes.
IT WILL become clear Aug. 8 just how effectively the new routines were planned. The elections office is managing expectations by alerting the public that there could be delays, that final results of some races may come after the night is over.
That’s because the cutoff is now 7 p.m., not 6 p.m. as in the past. At that point, the last rush of ballots must be processed and validated.
But a lot of preliminary processing starts as soon as the first ballots start arriving in the mail.
The first stop for ballots is at the county clerks’ office, where the outer envelope has an identifying code that can be scanned, the signature records compared and validated, marking the person on voter rolls as having already voted. This precludes a voter from subsequently popping into a voter center to cast another ballot, or somehow submitting a duplicate printed ballot.
Once the validated ballots are relayed to the elections office, the outer envelope can be removed and the inner envelope containing the ballot itself can be stored. The final opening and vote-scanning of ballots in hand can begin at 7 a.m. on Election Day, so a lot of results can be available soon after ballot deadline.
These are safeguards that should bolster public confidence in voting by mail, despite the way this method has become politically contentious. It does offer some protection from hacking and external interference, which have been on the rise.
If there are ways to secure voter identity and ballot validity — and those steps have been taken here — there is much that’s appealing about voting from home, on this extraordinary year like no other.
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