I can’t remember the last time I voted in person on election day.

I vaguely remember showing up at Honolulu Hale decades ago and ducking into a voting booth, but I can’t recall the procedure involved.

Did I use a pen to fill in a blank next to a candidate’s name? Or did I punch a hole in a card? Throw darts at a board, maybe?

The reason I haven’t voted in person is because, as a journalist, I almost always work election days — the Tuesday general elections, the Saturday primaries and the special elections.

Volunteers assist at 2018 early voting at Honolulu Hale.
A volunteer helps set up an early voting station last year at Honolulu Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But I have also come to love the simplicity of voting absentee: There are no lines to wait in, I can linger over the ballot as long as necessary, and I can use the internet to learn more about the candidates and the charter and constitutional amendment questions.

I voted absentee twice when I was younger and working overseas, something that was not so easy to do back in the day. I recall a lot of paperwork and validation from a notary public. But now voting absentee is quite simple.

In next year’s elections all of Hawaii’s voters will become “absentee” voters just like me — assuming that House Bill 1248 becomes law. If it does, all registered voters in the state will be mailed a ballot for both the Aug. 8 primary and the Nov. 3 general.

The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. David Ige, but the state Office of Elections is already moving forward to implement all-mail elections.

As Scotty Anderson, chairman of the state Elections Commission, said at a meeting Wednesday, the election office is proceeding “in hopeful anticipation” that Ige will let HB 1248 become law.

Ige’s communications director, Cindy McMillan, says the bill is still under departmental review. June 24 is the deadline for the governor to share the list of bills he intends to veto.

Purging Voter Rolls

At the meeting, Hawaii’s chief elections officer, Scott Nago, laid out what’s planned for HB 1248.

Beginning in August, the Office of Elections will mail out index-sized cards similar to the ubiquitous yellow ones every voter gets in an election year to remind them of their polling location.

The intent this summer, however, is to clean up voter registration rolls. If a card is returned by the Postal Service, that’s a pretty good indication that the voter no longer lives at the address on file.

What about young people registered to vote at their parents’ house but who have since moved to the mainland?

Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago, right, with Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii at Wednesday’s meeting. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Nago is encouraging folks to return those index cards so records can be updated. Same goes for people who mistakenly received two ballots.

“Don’t just throw it away,” Nago said of the index card, and instead send it back to the state or county clerk so that corrections can be made. If there are no corrections, then no worries.

After two election cycles — that is, four years — voters will be removed from registration rolls if they are not active, as allowed by federal law. Of Hawaii’s 775,000 registered voters, 5 percent — just under 40,000 voters — are currently inactive, meaning they do not live where they are registered.

The Elections Office is also working on an electronic system to verify signatures, which is a heck of a lot quicker than doing so by hand.

Nago said the City and County of Honolulu already has an electric scanner for signature verification, but not the other three counties. HB 1248 notes that hundreds of thousands of dollars will be allocated to help the state and counties with startup and transition costs over the next two fiscal years.

Pathetic Turnout Rates

Nago told the Elections Commission that it is not the responsibility of his office to increase turnout. Its mission, he said, is to ensure that people have access to voting and that it is as convenient as possible.

But Nago’s office does plan a statewide television commercial explaining the all-mail voting system.

The big question remains: Will all-mail voting improve voter turnout?

My guess is that it can’t hurt. (It’s also cheaper than trying to staff all of those precincts.)

Hawaii ranked dead last among states in the 2018 general election with a turnout of 39.3%. Six states had turnout rates of 60% and higher that same year, including top-ranked Minnesota (64%).

Scotty Anderson, chairman of the Elections Commission, center, with commissioners Michael Curtis and Carol Seielstad. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Important note: These figures are based on voter turnout as a percentage of the voting-eligible population. That’s not the same as the turnout of registered voters. In 2018 in Hawaii, that figure was 52.7%. But that is not an impressive figure, either. Twenty years earlier, in 1998, our turnout was 64.7%.

There are indications that voting by mail helps turnout. Among the top 10 states in turnout of eligible voters, Oregon and Washington have vote by mail. And 17 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration, which contributed to “registration records” in Oregon and California, says the Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.

Unfortunately, the Hawaii Legislature killed a bill last session allowing automatic voter registration. But it did pass a measure calling for automatic recounts in close elections. That bill is sitting on Ige’s desk, too.

All-mail voting will not eliminate the opportunity to vote in person. HB 1248 calls for a limited number of voter service centers to be open 10 days before election day, and I’m guessing they would include places like Honolulu Hale.

Ultimately, though, voting is up to voters. If you screw up your ballot, that’s your fault. But you can also go to one of those voting centers to request another ballot.

You also have to make sure to mail your ballot in on time, which ideally is well before the 7 p.m. deadline on election days — another requirement that is in HB 1248, as the current time is 6 p.m. If you don’t believe me, just ask Trevor Ozawa or Tommy Waters.

The Office of Elections would also be required under HB 1248 to report back to the Legislature how the new voting system worked out. Legislators could always decide to go back to polling places.

But the clear trend is away from voting in booths, as Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, wrote in a New York Times column Tuesday

“The ballot belongs to the voter, not the government,” she wrote, quoting Phil Keisling, the former Oregon secretary of state. “As long as it can be done with safety and integrity, it’s the obligation of the government to get it to me. It’s not my responsibility to qualify for it and get it.”

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