Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of stories examining Hawaii’s low voter participation rates. Read previous stories in the series as well as other initiatives Civil Beat is undertaking to understand why people don’t vote.
Oregon has conducted all elections by mail since 1998, when voters approved a ballot initiative to abandon the tradition of voting on election day at designated polling places.
Last year, neighboring Washington state followed suit by requiring all counties to adopt the ballot-by-mail system. Several other states rely on all-mail balloting for certain types of elections.
Elections conducted entirely by mail offer the ultimate in convenience voting, removing barriers and making casting a ballot as simple and easy as dropping a letter in the mail, proponents say.
Since adopting the vote by mail approach, both Oregon and Washington have been among the states with the highest total voter turnout.
“People love it, and voter turnout has gone up tremendously in states with all-mail elections,” said Todd Belt, associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Hawaii has already taken a big step in the same direction by adopting key ballot reforms that could move the state to all-mail elections, such as “no excuse” absentee voting. That allows any voter to request an absentee ballot without stating a specific reason. Hawaii voters can also file a permanent absentee ballot request to receive ballots by mail in all future elections.
Absentee ballots, including early walk-in voting, accounted for 41.6 percent of all votes cast in Hawaii in the 2010 general election, according to election statistics published by the Hawaii Office of Elections.
Hawaii has already had experience with mail-only voting.
Four special elections using mail ballots have been held on Oahu since 2008, three for seats on the Honolulu City Council created by unexpected vacancies, and a special election in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District to fill the seat vacated by then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie when he resigned in 2010 to run for governor. Three of the four recorded reasonably good turnout by Hawaii standards, probably higher than traditional balloting would have achieved.
The special congressional election drew 54 percent of registered voters, matching turnout in recent gubernatorial elections, and far surpassing the 21.9 percent turnout in a 2003 special congressional election in the 2nd Congressional District won by Ed Case.
Turnout in two of the city council elections, District 3 and District 5, topped 40 percent, which is about par for primary elections after 1998, and substantially above the 27.5 percent turnout in a 2002 special council election.
Only the District 1 election, in which Tom Berg won a seat on the council, lagged in voter turnout, with just 23.4 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
Election officials also point to low participation in Honolulu’s neighborhood board elections, done by mail or online, with turnout falling well below 10 percent.
“We put a ballot in every registered voter’s hand,” Honolulu elections administrator Glen Takahashi said.
“If mail elections was a solution to low turnout, you would have expected a higher turnout. So there are other factors that influence turnout other than just voting by mail,” he noted.
Janice Thompson, executive director of Oregon Common Cause, said her state’s experience with mail elections shows their advantages.
“What is unquestionable is that mail increases turnout in special elections and low profile local elections,” she said. “Nobody is paying attention to those elections, there’s little news coverage, and then the ballot appears at your house.”
However, she cautioned that there isn’t much evidence mail balloting increases turnout in general elections, at least in Oregon, which had relatively high voter turnout before adopting all-mail elections.
“I think mail elections have helped maintain the high voter turnout of older, more settled homeowners,” Thompson said. “It’s not effective for young people and poor people who are mobile, and have a harder time making sure their registration is current.”
Mail elections also avoid many election day issues, Thompson noted.
“A lot of times its hard to get enough polling place workers, misinformation gets spread around, or long lines discourage voters. With mail elections, none of those issues exist–we don’t have polling places.” she said.
Several academic studies of the effects of all-mail balloting on voter turnout have reported a modest positive impact, and at least one predicted turnout could fall among some voters.
For example, a recent study of all-mail elections in Washington State by the Center for the Study of American Politics at Yale University, found “switching to an all-mail election increases aggregate turnout in Washington counties by two to four percentage points, depending on election type.”
Voters who previously had been less likely to vote got a bigger boost in turnout than regular voters, including those who usually only voted in presidential elections, younger voters and previous non-voters, the researchers found.
Another group of researchers in California compared general election results in counties that used traditional and all-mail balloting, and found mail voting “may reduce turnout up to three percentage points.” They also found mail voters were more likely to vote only in major races and abstain from voting in “down ticket” races.
On the other hand, the California data showed a positive impact on turnout in special elections, which typically draw fewer voters. In these cases, the researchers predict a vote-by-mail system would boost turnout by about 8 percentage points.
A study of mail voting in California sponsored by the Pew Center on the States, based on research conducted in 2009, predicted a shift to mandatory all-mail voting could reduce the chance of an individual voter casting a ballot by 13 percent, unless countered by repeated communications about the importance of voting.
But voting by mail offers other advantages, including substantial cost savings and simpler logistics for election administrators.
State Sen. Les Ihara, a Democrat who has actively advocated increased public participation, said he has not taken a formal position in favor of mail balloting, but likes the dynamic created by the longer period for returning mail ballots.
“Traditionally, you just ramp up your campaign right before election day and Bam! It’s over,” Ihara said. “All-mail elections would be a sustained dialog, a continuous conversation. You don’t know who has voted and who didn’t, so you’ve got to keep up the sustained conversation with your constituents.”
But Ihara acknowledged mixed feelings about the disappearance of the traditional polling place.
“With mail voting, the ritual of voting isn’t there any more,” Ihara said. “It used to be a big deal.”
Thompson, of Oregon Common Cause, said mail elections seem to be more prevalent in states that have more ballot measures.
“There’s a new tradition of ballot measure parties,” Thompson said. “Bring your ballot, let’s talk about all the ballot measures. Its a new friends and neighbors tradition, a reflection of how hard it is to vote on multiple ballot measures in the voting booth.”
This is less of a factor in Hawaii, which does not allow citizen-sponsored initiatives and referendum at the state level.
Scott Nago, state elections administrator, said there have been several proposals in the past to adopt all-mail elections, but they didn’t move forward.
“It’s going to take a total change in the voting system, a complete overhaul,” Nago said.
Ian Lind is a veteran political reporter and longtime Hawaii investigative journalist who blogs at iLind.net.