According to new rankings, Hawaii places No. 32 among all states in voter turnout, with a depressing 36.5 percent of citizens who are eligible to vote casting ballots in 2014.
While that is about the same as the national average and better than our state’s performance in 2010, to put it mildly, there’s plenty room for improvement. Vote-by-mail bills currently before the Legislature stand a chance of significantly boosting the number of people taking part in our democracy.
House Bill 124 and Senate Bill 287 would phase in voting by mail, introducing the practice first in counties with fewer than 100,000 residents in 2016 and extending it statewide by 2020. Ballots would be mailed directly to voters, who would then complete and return them by mail. No braving rush-hour traffic to get to a polling place, waiting in line or dealing with fussy optical scanners.
These were among the 36.5 percent of registered voters who turned out in the 2014 general election in Hawaii.
Brian Tseng/Civil Beat
The bills provide for a limited number of “voter service centers” to open on election days to assist voters with special needs and receive absentee and mail-in ballots in person. Election-day voter registration, passed last year by the Legislature, would remain intact under both bills – a good idea, even with voting by mail: States with election-day registration had about 12 percent high turnout than those that didn’t in 2014.
Both bills enjoy strong support and stand a good chance of passage by the Senate and House.
Legislators supporting these bills recognize that 2014 marked the first Hawaii election in which more early votes were cast than on Election Day. Of those early ballots, 83 percent were mailed in by absentee voters. Further adapting to this trend, as Oregon, Colorado and Washington state have already done through statewide vote-by-mail laws, “would significantly reduce the logistical issues related to conducting elections,” says SB287.
That might eventually include phasing out Election Day as holiday for schools, state and county government offices and the University of Hawaii, which costs at least $11.5 million, according to a 2012 Civil Beat analysis.
The growing support for vote by mail and the new voter turnout report come at a time when elected officials and advocacy groups around the country are trying to boost participation in the electoral process, in no small part to offset the metastasizing influence of big money in U.S. elections.
Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which removed restrictions on corporate spending in elections, the glut of money that has flowed into federal and state elections has been staggering. The decision has enabled corporate interests to supplant those of actual voters in unprecedented ways. So long as the ruling stands, it will require new thinking to ensure the will of the people is represented and not simply that of the highest bidders.
Along those lines, President Barack Obama seemed to float a trial balloon with remarks last Wednesday in Cleveland in support of mandatory voting, quickly sparking a minor controversy. He talked about the potentially “transformative” effect of compulsory voting, which would likely bring more young, low-income and minority voters into the process and ostensibly counterbalance the influence of corporate money. He cited the benefit of mandatory voting laws in Australia and 25 other nations that have some form of compulsory voting, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
After a swell of predictable outrage at the idea of being told what to do by the government, the White House walked back the remarks a day later, saying the president “was not making a specific policy prescription for the United States.”
But an approach that has worked well for such countries as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica and others perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed so easily, particularly in a nation that struggles to get the next generation of voters to the polls. In 2014, turnout of voters under 30 dropped to 26 percent – not exactly a number that brings the phrase “participatory democracy” to mind.
Compulsory voting may be an issue for another day, but Hawaii legislators should pass voting by mail now. If we are to enable more voters to take an active role in our democracy, we must be innovative and fairly evaluate all means at our disposal. While placing an envelope in a mailbox isn’t exactly a new idea, it’s a promising path toward greater civic participation.
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