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Editorial: Mail-in voting put to the test

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When Americans talk about 2020 being an historic election year, they usually are referring to the presidential election, to be decided on Nov. 3. In Hawaii, however, voters will be making key decisions in the Aug. 8 primary election, in many contests and at every level except the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate.

These local races have the potential to bring new faces to municipal and state government, and likely will return a lot of the old hands, too. The presidential election gets most of the headlines this year, but it’s really local government that controls the things nearest to people’s kitchen-table concerns: roads and other infrastructure. Taxes and fees, of all sorts. Development. Police.

In addition, in this Democratic Party-dominant state, the chance to weigh in on some of the most heated competitions is now. And of course, the main events at the county level — mayoral and council positions — are nonpartisan, which gives a wider range of candidates a real shot at elected office.

Finally (and for Hawaii, most consequentially), this is a chance to uncover the potential and the pitfalls of the state’s new all-mail-voting system.

There are no neighborhood polling stations where, at the last minute, you can run in and vote on Election Day. There are voter service centers (click the link on the right at for VSC locations), but they are few and far between.

The best bet now is to bring ballots to “places of deposit” — also listed online — or by heading to a VSC and voting in person.

And postmarking it by Saturday means nothing. Ballots must be in the hands of the state Office of Elections or its agents, who are collecting them at the deposit boxes. Those in line by 7 p.m. Saturday to vote at a VSC or to deposit ballots will get their ballot counted; those whose ballots are still wending their way through the U.S. Postal Service will have missed the boat.

Following a post-mortem, the Elections Office must address any and all problems — those anticipated and those that catch us unawares — in a timely way so that the service can improve for the general election. There are enough months left to refine the process, to ease concerns about its trustworthiness.

Some possible refinements already have been proposed. Good-government groups are pushing for additional VSCs to be in place for Nov. 3, and for language-access barriers to be addressed, including appropriate translations with the ballots.

Those are both good ideas: People need support in exercising their right to vote, especially being unaccustomed to a new system, and at a time when long lines are especially to be avoided. And in this state and nation of immigrants, explanations of the voting process in many languages could be the necessary tool to enfranchise an otherwise locked-out voter.

One disadvantage of counting ballots when the voter is not present: Any spoiled mailed ballots (overvotes, mixed-partisan voting) won’t be discovered until tabulation, starting at 7 p.m. on Election Day. Voters don’t get a chance at a do-over, so it’s crucial that ballots be made as clear as possible.

There is some concern about close races taking longer than usual to resolve. That’s because all voters whose registration hasn’t been confirmed by their signature are being notified and have five days after the election to fix the problem. Patience, and transparency about the resolution process, are essential.

To end on a hopeful note: The ballot counts so far are impressive, signalling a boost in voter turnout. That was the whole point of mailing the ballots to everyone. If yours is still in a pile of mail, fish it out and get it in. It’s decision time for Hawaii.

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