“Disgraceful.”

That’s the word Jean Aoki of the League of Woman Voters of Hawaii uses to describe the voter turnout in the 2003 special election to fill Patsy Mink‘s 2nd Congressional District seat.

She’s not alone. An embarrassing reality in Hawaii is that people here don’t vote.

The U.S. Census Bureau, using its own surveys, ranked Hawaii last in the nation (51.8 percent) for voter turnout in 2008 — the year the nation elected a president who was born in Hawaii. The State Elections Office puts the turnout figure at 66 percent. By either measure, Hawaii voter turnout is low.

Interest in local elections may be turning a corner, however, judging from voter participation in the May 22 special election for the 1st Congressional District, which features three heavyweights: Democrats Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa and Republican Charles Djou.

As of May 20, some 48 percent — or 152,000 — of the ballots mailed to 317,337 registered voters in the district had been mailed back. Voting in person at Honolulu Hale ended Thursday.

That’s already twice the number of residents who voted in 2003, when the 2nd district had 348,000 registered voters. That vote so appalled political leaders that the Legislature gave the State Elections Office authority to hold all-mail special elections.

In that race, 44 candidates were on the ballot, but just 22 percent of registered voters turned out. Case finished first, and Hanabusa was third. Voting occurred at polling places on Jan. 4, the first Saturday after New Year’s Day.

Turnout in the current contest has already surpassed the 41 percent and 45 percent turnout in two mail-in-only special elections in 2009 to fill vacancies created by the deaths of two Honolulu City Council incumbents.

Jean Aoki likes what she sees and says the league will meet next month to decide if it should support voting-by-mail in regular elections.

“While I personally cherish poll site voting, because it gives people privacy and reduces the chance of vote-buying and untoward persuasion, we have to face the reality of decreasing turnout,” she said. “To have two systems — mail-in voting is essentially absentee voting — is a waste of money.”

Cost was the main reason the State Elections Office opted for voting by mail. The election is expected to cost $900,000, with savings coming from not having to pay people to run polling stations.

“It’s so obvious that if you make it more convenient, more people will vote,” said  Nikki Love, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan group focused on “open, honest and accountable” government. “Honestly, for what other tasks in life do we require people to register 30 days in advance, and then allow them to do it only on one specific Tuesday?”

According to the national Common Cause, vote-by-mail elections “can increase turnout by four to five percentage points in general elections and significantly more in local or off-year elections.”

That’s the case in Oregon, the only state to have all mail-in balloting and a state where 68 percent of eligible voters — ninth best in the nation — turned out to vote in 2008.

Don Hamilton, communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State Office, said turnout was on average 6 percentage points higher in the last three presidential elections than in the previous three. (Oregon voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, made mail voting permanent in 1998.)

It’s also cheaper. Oregon’s general election — the last one with polling places — cost $3.6 million, or $1.81 per voter. The cost of a January 10 statewide special election was $2.2 million, or $1.05 per voter.

What about voter fraud or ballot tampering?

“It’s a class C felony, and we have sent people to jail for that,” said Hamilton. “But fraud is not common. The basic way it works is once a ballot is received, every signature is checked on voter registration cards. They are compared by election staff trained by a retired FBI official.”

Hamilton said elections results are also known “much faster” through mail-in ballots rather than polling precincts because most of them are mailed in well before deadline. The only time there are delays is when an election is close, as in the 2000 presidential election.

The expectation in the 1st district election is that results will be known shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday and that they will include all ballots received Friday and some Saturday morning.

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