Hawaii legislators are considering bills that call for voting reforms like automatic recounts in close elections, a statewide mail voting system and others that could make it easier for new voters to register.

The push to reform Hawaii’s voting laws comes just after the state Supreme Court invalidated the election for City Council District 4 between Trevor Ozawa and Tommy Waters because some late-arriving ballots should not have been counted. The final count after the Nov. 6 election showed Ozawa ahead by just 22 votes, or 0.06 percent of all ballots cast.

Senate Bill 216 would require automatic recounts for general elections if the difference between the top two vote-getters is 100 votes or less or 0.5 percent of the total turnout in that race, whichever figure is greater. Hawaii used to have a recount law, but the Legislature repealed it in 1973 after it determined that courts should decide on election challenges.

There’s a move afoot, again, to convert to all-mail ballot elections. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the cost of automatic recounts in tight races would be minimal, but he didn’t give a specific amount.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, who chairs the committee, said he would amend the current bill to give the Office of Elections 48 hours after the polls close to complete any recounts.

Rep. Chris Todd introduced a similar bill in the House. HB 428 is scheduled for a hearing Thursday at 2 p.m. before the House Judiciary Committee.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Lawmakers will also consider implementing a statewide mail voting system by 2022. This will be at least the fifth session in a row lawmakers have tried to pass all-mail voting. Previous attempts cleared the Senate but died late in the session in House committees.

However, leaders in both chambers seem supportive of the reform this session. Senate President Ron Kouchi advocated for a statewide system in his speech on the opening day of the session.

House Speaker Scott Saiki told Civil Beat earlier this month that he also supports a mail voting system.

A pair of bills, HB1248 and its companion, SB560, would require all elections in the state to be conducted by mail.

The bills also propose creating “voter service centers” on each island where people could drop off their ballots or register to vote. The bills would also allow people with disabilities to transmit their ballots electronically.

Nago testified in support of the Senate bill Tuesday.

Mail ballots have outnumbered those cast at traditional polling places since 2014.

Attracting More Voters

Several bills scheduled for hearings in the House on Thursday would make it easier for people to register to vote.

HB 1485, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Lee, would allow automatic pre-registration of 16-year-olds in public schools. Another bill in the Senate would lower the voting age to 16 for state and local elections.

“Data show that after an individual votes once, the individual often becomes a habitual voter,” the House bill’s language says. “Therefore, by facilitating the ability of those sixteen years of age and older to preregister or register to vote, the State will be empowering a new generation of lifelong voters.”

HB 1544, also introduced by Lee, would automatically register anyone who files a state tax return.

In both bills, Lee cites automatic voter registration in other states, specifically Massachusetts, Oregon and Colorado, as evidence that increasing the number of registered voters could increase turnout.

Another House bill, HB 1217, would make voter registration automatic when applying for a driver’s license.

People trickle into Farrington High School polling location to cast their vote.
This polling place at Farrington High School was lonely during a recent election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Increases in voter registration have not always equalled increases in turnout, especially in primary elections. For example in the 2016 primary, Hawaii had over 726,000 registered voters, but only 252,730 actually voted.

The Office of Elections proposed two bills, one each in the House and Senate, that would allow any voters with special needs to transmit their ballots electronically. Nago told a Senate committee Tuesday that he’d especially like to see the law passed if the state moves to an all-mail system.

There are more than 80 bills dealing with election laws before the Legislature this session, but some don’t deal directly with the voting process.

SB 217 would require the elections office to randomize the order of names on a ballot. The bill cites two studies that found candidates whose names were listed first on ballots had an advantage over those farther down.

HB 286 would require presidential candidates to post their income tax returns online, and HB 712 would require the same for vice-presidential candidates, gubernatorial candidates and candidates for each county’s mayor.

“Without full public disclosure of a candidate’s past income, business relations, and indebtedness, both monetary and otherwise, a citizen cannot cast an informed vote or be assured that decisions made by the executive will be in the interests of the people, rather than for the candidate’s own financial gain,” the bill states.

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