There’s an old axiom when it comes to elections: it should be easy to vote and hard to cheat. Hawaii’s primary failed on the first count and raised concerns about the second.

First, voters had Tropical Storm Iselle to contend with, which resulted in a controversial make-up election on the Big Island. Then the state elections office revealed that roughly 800 ballots from Maui hadn’t been counted — something that wasn’t discovered until four days after the election; although there was no evidence of foul play, the blunder cast doubt on the office’s competency.

Add to this the still recent memory of polling stations running out of ballots during the 2012 election, and it is no wonder people are up in arms about the state of Hawaii’s democratic process. Major reform — beyond simply a regime change at the Hawaii Office of Elections — is needed and it’s time Hawaii seriously considered the benefits of a 100 percent vote-by-mail system.

The doors open for voters 7am at Keonepoko Elememtary in Puna on August 15, 2014

Six days after the originally scheduled primary, voters line up to cast ballots at Keonepoko Elememtary School in Puna on Aug. 15.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

So far, only three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — have shuttered  their polling places in favor of a vote-by-mail-only system. But many states, including Hawaii, are inching closer. In the recent primary, more than half of voters cast ballots by mail, and Hawaii has now adopted “no-excuse” absentee voting as well as permanent absentee status.

These reforms were adopted with the good intention of making it easier to vote, but in reality such incremental steps have contributed to the Gordian knot that is our electoral process. Between early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, permanent absentee status, and, of course, in-person voting, there are now four ways to vote in Hawaii. Therein lies the problem.

As Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State and champion of Oregon’s vote-by-mail measure, told Emerging Local Government Leaders in 2012, at a certain point you reach the “worst of both worlds”:

“By 1996, over half of all votes cast in [Oregon] elections were cast via absentee ballots — yet we had to print enough ballots to deal with every one of those voters deciding at the last minute to switch to the polls! And ensuring against double voting meant having to check every absentee ballot against the poll books. The result was more expensive elections, exasperated election officials, and voter confusion; we were essentially running ‘dual elections.’ In terms of ‘risk’ and possible loss of integrity, it was the worst situation to be in.”

In contrast, a vote-by-mail system provides a streamlined process. Every registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot prior to an election. Voters fill out their ballots at their leisure and then either mail them in or drop them at a designated and secure location by Election Day. Because there are no polling places, there is no risk of hurricane closures or ballot shortages. There is only one way to vote, but it is the easiest way for both the voter and the election authority. 

vote by mail box Olympia, WA

A ballot box in Olympia, Washington

Patti Epler/Civil Beat

When it comes to cheating, vote-by-mail’s clean track record in Oregon, Washington and Colorado speaks for itself. Some experts believe mail-only voting may make it more difficult to cheat. Because ballots are cast and processed individually, they can only be tampered with on an individual basis. Polling places, on the other hand, leave room for mass mischief or mistakes, like an electronic reader with 800 votes suddenly disappearing.

While no system is perfect, vote-by-mail’s simplified process would allow the Hawaii Office of Elections to more closely monitor the mail-in votes, which are authenticated by signature. Suspicious ballots could then be verified with a simple phone call.  

Critics of vote-by-mail often decry the loss of a time-honored civic tradition: that Rockwellian image of standing in line at the polling place with your neighbors and voting in a bunting-clad booth. But more than half of Hawaii’s voters have already eschewed that tradition in favor of convenience and millennials don’t show any signs of reversing the trend.

Moreover, polling places are costly to run. By switching to a mail-only system, Hawaii would save millions of dollars each election cycle — money that could be better spent in get-out-the-vote and voter education efforts to combat our state’s dismal turnout. 

So long as Hawaii remains such a strong one-party state, we will never be a shining beacon of voter participation, but that doesn’t mean we should give in to the apathy. In 2012, Chief Election Officer Scott Nago told Civil Beat’s Ian Lind that there had been several proposals to adopt vote-by-mail elections, but they never moved forward, ostensibly because the change was too much work. 

“It’s going to take a total change in the voting system, a complete overhaul,” Nago said.

Two years and two botched elections later, a “complete overhaul” seems exactly what we need.

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