Frustrated over election day foul-ups, Gov. Neil Abercrombie is putting his administration’s support behind converting the state’s voting system to an all-mail-in and electronic voting system by 2014.

The governor disclosed his plans to Civil Beat contributor Richard Halloran, who shared the news in a Community Voices column Monday.

“We must consider new technologies that can help bring our election process into the 21st century,” Abercrombie said in a letter to Halloran earlier this month, noting that mail-in and electronic voting “has been effective in other parts of the country.”

“Moreover,” the governor wrote, “absentee ballots have seen a steady increase and use over the last several elections and there has been no evidence to question the accuracy and security of these ballots.”

The Abercrombie administration confirmed the governor’s intent Monday, stating in a press release that “100 percent mail-in voting” will be part of its 2013 legislative package.

AG Will Investigate Elections

Abercrombie’s initiative comes in the wake of well-publicized problems with Hawaii’s election system this year.

In the Aug. 11 primary, delays in the opening of some polling places on the Big Island forced the governor to issue an emergency proclamation authorizing them to stay open for an extra 90 minutes.

The state Elections Office subsequently took over the Big Isle’s voting operations for the Nov. 6 general election. But that election was marred, too, when 19 Oahu precincts ran out of ballots. Extra ballots were rushed to the precincts, which were kept open longer, but not before many voters decided to give up waiting and go home.

The Elections Office is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning to address management of both elections, but Abercrombie isn’t waiting around, either.

“I do not plan to simply stand on the side and wait to see what their own review may bring,” he told Halloran, something he reiterated in Monday’s press release. He has asked Attorney General David Louie to investigate the Office of Elections and the circumstances that resulted in a shortage of paper ballots.

“This serious problem has tarnished the election process and eroded public confidence,” the governor said. “The right to vote is one of our most cherished duties as U.S. citizens. Therefore, we must ensure that our voting process runs smoothly and efficiently.”

Pacific Northwest Does It

Oregon and Washington are the only states that conduct all their elections via mail. (The photo on this page comes from the Evergreen State.)

“Many other states permit some elections to be held by mail only,” said Jon Kuhl, manager of public affairs and media for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C. “Colorado, for instance, allows jurisdictions to choose to use all-mail elections for primaries. And a number of states permit very small jurisdictions to use all-mail elections or have other regulations that permit some elections to be mail-only.”

In 2011, California permitted an all-mail election pilot in one county, said Kuhl. Wyoming permits all-mail elections if the regular election is declared null and void.

Mail-in voting appears to pay dividends.

Civil Beat, in his series on Hawaii’s vanishing voter, found that “Since adopting the vote by mail approach, both Oregon and Washington have been among the states with the highest total voter turnout.”

Civil Beat reported that Hawaii “has already taken a big step” toward mail-in voting by adopting ballot reforms like “no excuse” absentee voting that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot without stating a reason. Voters can also request permanent absentee ballots by mail in all future elections.

And, Hawaii has recent experience with mail-only voting: four special elections since 2008, including a congressional election in 2010 that posted a decent turnout rate.

Recent Election Reform

Several measures relating to elections became law in the last biennial session of the Hawaii Legislature.

They includes bills that allow for mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters in remote areas, authorize neighbor island county clerks to mail an absentee ballot to all registered voters on any island of the county that is not the county seat of government, and to permit acceptance of electronic voting applications starting in 2016.

Another measure, intended to help military personnel stationed overseas, authorizes ballots and balloting materials to be transmitted by fax or email.

But lawmakers passed on a 2001 House bill that would have established “an election by mail voting system for federal, state, and county primary or special primary elections.” The rationale for the bill was because Hawaii holds its primaries on Saturdays — unlike most states — something that appears to have contributed to low turnout.

The bill had the support of Common Cause Hawaii, which testified, “We believe this measure would make voting easier for citizens and help improve voter participation.”

Other testimony included an analysis from a University of Oregon political science professor, who assessed that state’s mail-in system five years after implementation.

“The results suggest that Oregonians, across all demographic and partisan categories, continue to favor this type of election. A majority of respondents indicated that their turnout has not changed since the adoption of vote by mail,” concluded Priscilla L. Southwell. “However, almost one-third of the respondents reported that they voted more often with vote by mail — particularly women, the disabled, homemakers, and those aged 26-38 years. These results also suggest that no partisan advantage is likely to result as a consequence of elevated turnout under vote by mail.”

The Elections Office takes no position on whether the state should adopt all-mail voting, said spokesman Rex Quidilla, though it would advise lawmakers on any technical concerns.

Currently, Hawaii has a hybrid voting system, meaning that voters can vote absentee, participate in early walk-in voting or vote in person on election day.

Quidilla said Hawaii is clearly trending toward more toward absentee voting versus precinct voting. Though only 62 percent of registered voters turned out in the 2012 general election, precinct turnout was 33.5 percent while absentee turnout was 28.4 percent.

In theory, an all-mail-in system would not lead to the kinds of problems Hawaii had this year, as there would be no precincts. It might also be cheaper, though increased postage costs might offset any savings to the state and counties.

A switch to an all-mail-in system will have significant impact on Hawaii elections. Political campaigns will have to take different approaches to “getting out the vote,” and candidate debates and forums will have to be scheduled earlier. Same goes for political advertising.

One other impact: The first Tuesday in November in even-numbered years would likely no longer be a paid holiday in Hawaii — something that cost taxpayers at least $11.5 million to close state and county government offices, schools and the University of Hawaii on Nov. 6.

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