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KILAUEA, Kauai — The woman who wandered into the polling place at Kilauea Elementary School on Election Day was insistent that she wanted to drop off her absentee ballot.
She read wording from the envelope telling her the ballot could be left at “any polling place.” Except for one thing — it was addressed to the elections unit in Martinez, California, the seat of Contra Costa County, where she lives. Nevertheless, she insisted that Kauai poll workers must take her ballot.
“Ma’am, you’re in Hawaii,” a poll worker pointed out.
“It says any post office,” she hissed.
Eventually disabused of the notion she could ditch her ballot in Kilauea, she was sent on her way with directions to the post office (“right on Kilauea Road, then left and then left.”)
Perhaps it was a fitting farewell to a polling station and a way of electoral life that went away, probably forever, on Kauai when the polls closed at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
A bill signed into law earlier this year makes Kauai the testbed for all-mail balloting in 2020, with the rest of the state potentially following two years later if all goes well. Hawaii would join several other states — notably Oregon and Colorado — where all-mail voting has established itself as the new thing in elections.
In another electoral first this year for voters statewide including on Kauai, new voters were able to register on the spot and then immediately cast ballots. Demand for same-day registration and voting quickly outstripped the supply of registration forms, which came in packs of 50. Halfway through the day, an emergency courier was sent from Lihue with a resupply of forms and pens.
Prospective new registrants crowded benches in the back of the polling place, patiently waiting for as long as an hour for officials in town to process their paperwork. They were good-humored and none complained.
Among the new registrants was Sebastian Zietz, better known by his surfing nickname, “Sea Bass,” for many years one of the most colorful and well-known competitors on the international tournament circuit. He’s long lived in Kilauea, but apparently hadn’t voted previously. Leaving the polling place, he was recognized by fans.
“This is familiar and comfortable. Going to the polls has always seemed like something that made voting come alive.” —Martha Girdany
In all, 896 people cast ballots at Kilauea School on Tuesday. It was a turnout heavier than expected, which poll workers attributed to the more urgent national interest in this midterm because of various controversies surrounding President Donald Trump.
But in Kilauea — as at the other 13 precinct polling stations on Kauai — when the voting booths were disassembled, and the signage packed away around 7 p.m., it marked the end of a familiar act of civic participation for many voters. For some, there was nostalgia for how the polling place was a social gathering point — a venue in which to talk story and renew old friendships, and even old antagonisms.
With all-mail balloting, there will still be a few polling places set up for early voting and mail ballot drop-offs, but they won’t provide the traditional Election Day experience.
The problem is that the voting marketplace, driven by the digital age and the increasing popularity of absentee ballots — not to mention the cost of running the polling places — has shifted the process of voting in a different direction. For example, on Election Day in Kilauea, in-person turnout accounted for a little over a quarter of eligible voters, while absentees represented more than 32 percent, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections
Martha Girdany, a 60-something who has been voting for decades, lamented the passing of an era. “This is familiar and comfortable,” Girdany said after she voted. “Going to the polls has always seemed like something that made voting come alive.”
But Girdany was a realist.
“If vote-by-mail will stimulate participation,” she said, “so much the better.”
Young, newly registered voters could have cared less. Asked if he thought eliminating polling places would render voting less personal and meaningful, one newly minted 18-year-old voter could only summon a shrug.
Another new young voter allowed as how there was something to be said for tradition, but it was clear he knows better than older voters that the digital age has caught up with voting. “It’s a shame,” was the best he could do when asked the meaning of the change.
Hawaii polling places have always had an air of informality in keeping with the rest of island culture. One barefoot man walked in still pulling a shirt over his head. Women in bathing suits quickly covered by scarves were just as common.
As usual, the polling place showed graphically that it is a great equalizer. Landscapers wearing soil-streaked clothing and uniformed service workers from hospitality businesses vastly outnumbered voters wearing even the aloha shirt version of Hawaii business casual.
After the polls closed, volunteer poll workers — who earned a $100-a-day stipend for a 12-hour day — rearranged the school cafeteria that served as the polling place. The scanning machine disgorged its contents, which were packed neatly and sealed in boxes. The voting booths, most of which had long ago seen better days mechanically, were collapsed and folded into their containers for (probably) the last time.
Bill Troutman, who’s served as a polling place volunteer supervisor for more than 20 years, focused on the detailed checklist that had to account for everything used on Election Day. That included requiring that a second person physically confirm that the memory card from the vote scanner had been placed in the correct envelope.
“OK, thank you all,” he said to the crew just after 7 p.m. With that, the 10 or so poll workers filed out of the cafeteria into the darkness.
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