The results of Hawaii’s primary are in, and the big winner is … absentee voting!

Sure, it’s shameful that turnout this past Saturday was a dismal 38.6 percent, although that’s an improvement from two years ago.

A more useful comparison, however, is to the 2014 primary when, as with this year, there was a race for governor. The turnout was 41.5 percent. Put another way, over 3,300 fewer people voted in 2018 than in 2014.  

What’s worth celebrating is the fact that the majority of the votes this primary election — more than 179,000 out of more than 286,000 cast — came from absentee ballots, a combination of mail-in and early walk-in voting. 

The trend, which began four years ago, is clear. And while evidence is mixed on whether mail-in voting improves turnout, it does offer “potential cost savings, opportunities and barriers to fraud, and access for disabled voters,” as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission puts it.

Ballot counting in th eSenate Chambers also wrapped in paper to protect the Koa desks. 11 aug 2018
Ballots were counted in the Senate Chambers on Saturday, where tables were wrapped in paper to protect the koa desks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the three states that have all-mail voting, the turnout is impressive: 80.3 percent in Oregon’s 2016 general election, for example, and 78.7 percent in Washington state. Colorado, which began mailing ballots in 2014, has seen an uptick too.

Oregon’s success has a lot to do with automatic voter registration. In January 2016 it became the first state to implement AVR, which does away with the need to fill out a voter registration card at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

We understand that Washington, Oregon and Colorado have historically done well when it comes to voter turnout. But the numbers are still impressive.

Yet Hawaii is moving very slowly toward mail-in voting. After several years of killing enabling legislation, the Hawaii Legislature finally agreed this year to try a pilot program for the 2020 primary and general election — but on Kauai only.

There is no plan to expand the program or make it permanent. Instead, the Office of Elections is required to report back to lawmakers how the pilot program worked out.

As for AVR, several bills at the 2018 Legislature called for Hawaii adopting the program. The bills died, even though a person renewing their driver’s license could decline to be registered to vote.

We Need To Move Forward

When last we opined about all mail-in voting, lawmakers were considering a bill to enact voting by mail uniformly across all counties starting with the 2020 elections. While we were pleased the bill did not die, it was severely weakened.

We hope lawmakers returning to the Capitol in January will again consider the broader legislation as well as AVR. There is little excuse for doing otherwise.

Absentee voting has been trending upward for years. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

For those that want to hold on to the privilege of walking into a voting booth, we should do what Washington does: require counties to have at least one voting center open for in-person early voting beginning 18 days before an election. In Colorado, it begins 15 days before an election.

The service centers can accommodate voters with special needs, offer same-day registration and voting and provide other election services, too — something the Kauai pilot calls for.

And while they are at it, lawmakers should look to switch our primary from a Saturday to a Tuesday. While several states vote on other days of the week, none do so on the weekend.

By wide account, there were sometimes more poll workers than voters in many precincts Saturday. But absentee turnout exceeded precinct turnout in all four counties.

A total of 475 people also registered and voted on election day in Kauai, Hawaii and Maui counties, the first time same-day service was offered statewide. (The City and County of Honolulu is still processing registration forms and won’t have a total count for about two weeks.) That’s worth celebrating, too. 

Until Hawaii makes it easier to vote, we encourage the use of absentee ballots. It’s quick, easy and popular. The deadline to request a mail ballot for the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 30.

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