A bill that attempts to ramp up Hawaii’s voter turnout by mandating all-mail elections is now headed to  the full House of Representatives.

House Bill 2541 cleared the Finance Committee after a hearing Tuesday. The bill calls for eventually mailing out all ballots and closing traditional polling places.

The Aloha State has had the worst voter turnout in the country for the last five presidential elections. And just 35 percent of voters participated in the 2014 primary election, a record low.

Oregon switched to all-mail ballots 20 years ago and has seen increased voter participation ever since. Washington and Colorado also vote exclusively by mail.

Registered voters would no longer have to request a mail ballot under HB 2541.


Four in 10 Hawaii voters cast mail ballots in the 2016 general election. Half of voters mailed in ballots for the primary that year.

A recent Civil Beat poll found that 46 percent of residents supported the change, while 35 percent opposed it.

The Office of Elections would be charged with making the switch to all-mail balloting in time for the 2020 elections. The bill would appropriate money to establish more drop-off locations for those who want to deliver their ballots themselves.

Testimony on the bill has been overwhelmingly supportive during the first two hearings. Just one person opposed it.

The Office of Elections testified that $1 million would be needed to purchase ballot scanners, sorters, security containers and drop-off boxes. Funding would also go to voter education.

But switching to all-mail voting would save the state about $750,000 per election cycle in labor costs, the office said.

It can be especially hard for lower-income voters to get to the polls on Election Day, wrote the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice in testimony. They may work far from their polling place or have difficulty taking time off work.

This is the fourth consecutive year that some legislators have pushed for voting by mail. Two of the other three attempts died in conference committee, while the third came close to clearing both chambers.

Sen. Karl Rhoads has introduced bills to require all-mail voting several times.

Polling places have a difficult time recruiting workers because they’re paid so poorly, he said.

Rhoads guessed that the bill’s chances of passage this session are better than 50-50.

“Bills sometimes take a while to ripen and I think the arguments in favor of all-mail voting are pretty strong,” he said.

Election turnouts have steadily declined since Hawaii became a state in 1959. The state’s first general election that year saw 94 percent turnout, the highest ever. Turnout has continued to trend downward, the exception being the contentious 2016 general election.

But even that year, just 58 percent of the nearly 750,000 registered Hawaii voters cast ballots. That was 6 percent higher than the 710,000 voters in the 2014 general election.

The state’s actual voter turnout rate may not quite be as bad as it sounds. Voter rolls are purged sporadically but often still contain names of people who have moved, died or gone to prison. Hawaii is home to a lot of military families who move frequently.

Hawaii’s 2014 primary was the first that saw more ballots cast early than on Election Day. More than 80 percent of early voters mailed in ballots.

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