Worried about the state’s anemic voter turnout, two Senate committees unanimously approved legislation Thursday to implement voting by mail for all Hawaii counties by 2020.

That pleased two major proponents of House Bill 1401, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, which believe more people will vote if the process is made more convenient and accessible.

But representatives for both nonprofits told members of the Senate committees on Judiciary and Labor and Ways and Means that they feared the legislation would be killed during the conference committee period that runs during the last two weeks of April.

After all, that’s what happened last year.

Chief Election Officer Scott Nago, left at table, and Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi answer lawmakers’ questions about vote-by-mail legislation. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Janet Mason of the League of Women Voters and Corie Tanida of Common Cause asked legislators to make sure HB 1401 isn’t one of the myriad measures that invariably falls through the cracks as lawmakers scramble to strike final deals.

Mason assured senators that there was no risk to incumbency in passing vote-by-mail.

That comment elicited knowing chuckles in Committee Room 211 at the Capitol. After all, what lawmaker would vote to make it easier to remove him or her from office?

HB 1401 is not a done deal, and Judiciary and Labor Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran amended the bill in several ways Thursday.

First, it will now include the contents of the latest draft of Senate Bill 334, which Keith-Agaran described as similar to HB 1401 but said is also “more complete in addressing additional statutes that need to be repealed or modified to reflect implementing elections by mail.”

The Senate bill, which was authored by Keith-Agaran, also includes language clarifying how same-day voter registration would work. The suggestions came from Glen Takahashi, the clerk for the City and County of Honolulu.

The revised House draft will also heed the advice of Peter Fritz, a disabled person, to allow people with disabilities or special needs to use a ballot that is electronically transmitted to the voter.

“Because this bill replaces the current voting system with what is essentially an absentee ballot system, it may discriminate against individuals with disabilities who cannot complete a paper ballot without assistance,” Fritz testified.

Fritz pointed to lawsuits filed in Maryland, Ohio and California regarding vote-by-mail and paper absentee ballots that are “inaccessible for individuals with disabilities. A court ordered Maryland to adopt a system for remote marking of ballots for the 2014 election.”

And, at the request of Chief Election Officer Scott Nago, the state and county clerks could opt to implement the mail voting system by the next election year, 2018.

Price Tag Still Unstated

One sticking point, however, may be the cost of the implementation.

HB 1401 calls for providing “places of deposit” — drop-off boxes — for personal delivery of the ballots during the final weeks before an election.

That’s because there is likely to be a postal “service gap” during that period, meaning ballots mailed by traditional post may not make it to the county clerks before the votes are counted.

The legislation also calls for setting up “a limited number of voter service centers” that would remain open on Election Day to process the mail-in ballots. The centers would also help voters with special needs and offer same-day registration and voting.

And there will be costs for voter education and software related to mail-in balloting.

Nago estimated his office would need $200,000 while Takahashi said his office would need nearly twice that amount. Costs for other counties would also have to be factored in.

Currently, the dollar figure in the bill is blank.

Keith-Agaran, at the urging of Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, wants the amended legislation to include a breakdown of the costs and timeline for implementing the mail-in system.

A major attraction of mail-in balloting is that it is expected to ultimately cost the state and counties less even as it improves turnout.

It is also the trend.

“In the City and County of Honolulu, absentee voting comprised 60 and 52 percent of votes cast in the 2016 primary and general elections, respectively,” Takahashi noted in his testimony.

State Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran tweeted a snapshot during his own committee hearing Thursday. Common Cause also voiced its view on the proceedings in social media:

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