Legislators said Tuesday they are considering piloting an all-mail voting system on Kauai in 2020 before deciding if they’ll adopt it statewide.

In an unexpected move, lawmakers this week resurrected a 2017 bill that aims to increase voter turnout and save money by mandating all-mail elections. House Bill 1401 almost made it through the legislative process last year but died on the last day of conference committee, a series of hearings where lawmakers from both chambers try to work out differences.

Lawmakers introduced an identical bill with the same purpose this year, but it appeared to die last month when the Senate committees on Judiciary and Ways and Means declined to give it a hearing.

Lawmakers have introduced measures for all-mail voting for the last four years. Caleb Hartsfield/Civil Beat

At a Tuesday meeting, Sen. Brian Taniguchi, lead Senate negotiator on the conference committee and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his office was drafting an amended version of HB 1401 that would pilot the program on Kauai. It may be available as soon as Wednesday.

Taniguchi said Senate President Ronald Kouchi, of Kauai, indicated his home county would be interested in testing all-mail elections because it has trouble recruiting volunteer poll workers.

Taniguchi wasn’t initially interested in hearing the issue, but said he’s done more research and changed his mind. A pilot program would allow the state to iron out kinks in its voting system. Spoiled ballots, fraud and prohibiting campaigning near ballot drop-off boxes are issues that deserve more scrutiny, he said.

“I think people kind of see the writing on the wall, that it’s probably something we should be doing,” Taniguchi said. “I’m old school, so I feel like election day people should go to the polls and vote.”

This is the fourth consecutive year that the Legislature has attempted to pass a bill mandating all-mail voting.

HB 1401 was introduced by Rep. Scott Nishimoto, lead House negotiator on the conference committee and chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He called the possible pilot program a good first step.

Voting by mail “is a big change to how we vote and I think it’s prudent to take our time and iron out the kinks,” Nishimoto said.

HB 1401 calls for voter service centers to be open for the 10 business days prior to election day. They would allow voters to drop off their mail ballots personally, assist those with special needs and offer same-day registration.

A vote-by-mail box in Olympia, Washington. Patti Epler/Civil Beat

The fact that this bill was brought back so late in the session indicates that the Legislature is serious about advancing the bill, said Sen. Karl Rhoads, who’s introduced similar legislation in the past.

“You never know for sure,” he said. “But I would say yes, it’s quite likely.”

Rhoads called the bill “an important part of moving us into the 21st century, in terms of voting.”

He noted the state’s same-day voter registration law goes into effect this year and said he’d also like to see opt-out voter registration, in which residents registering for state identification would automatically be registered to vote unless they check a box opting out.

Mail-In Voting On The Rise

If HB 1401 becomes law, Hawaii would join Oregon, Washington and Colorado as the only states that conduct elections exclusively by mail. Oregon made the switch 20 years ago and has seen increased voter participation since.

Four in 10 Hawaii voters cast mail ballots for the 2016 general election. The same was true for half of voters who participated in the primary that year.

Hawaii’s 2014 primary was the first that saw more ballots cast early than on Election Day. The majority of early voters cast ballots by mail, not in person.

A recent Civil Beat poll found 46 percent of residents support the change to all-mail balloting, while 35 percent opposed it.

Voting by mail has been seen as a way to increase Hawaii’s abysmal voter turnout, though it may seem worse than it is. Voter rolls are purged sporadically but often contain names of people who have moved, died or gone to prison. Hawaii is home to a lot of military families who move frequently.

Still, Hawaii has had the nation’s lowest turnout for the past five years. The state hit a record low during the 2014 primary election, when just 35 percent of voters participated.

A one-time expenditure of $1 million would be needed to purchase the necessary equipment for all-mail balloting, but Hawaii would save $750,000 in labor costs every year, according to the state Office of Elections.

Join the conversation in-person at Civil Beat’s upcoming Civil Cafe event, “Legislative Wrap-up 2018,” on Wednesday, May 2, at noon at the Capitol. Go to our RSVP page to register and get more information. 

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