In anticipation of Hawaii’s first elections to be conducted entirely by mail next year, county clerks are gearing up with new equipment. 

Maui, Kauai and Hawaii county have all purchased new vote counting machines, while Honolulu, which modernized its vote counting system in 2014, will purchase eight to 10 half-ton boxes for ballot deposit.

“The sheer weight helps with the security of it,” Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi told a panel of state lawmakers.

The counties are also identifying locations for voters to deposit their ballots as well as voting service centers where residents can register. All the islands are expected to have one of those centers except for Lanai which has scheduling problems, according to Maui County Clerk Josiah Nishita.

Mail in Ballot hearing with left, Representative Chris Lee and Chair Judiciary Committee Karl Rhoads.
Rep. Chris Lee, left, and Sen. Karl Rhoads listen to updates on how the counties are implementing the all-mail voting system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The four county clerks along with Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago gave an update on their elections preparations to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees Wednesday afternoon.

The Legislature passed the all-mail voting measure last session which also gave the counties $830,731 to make the switch. The elections office has estimated that switching to all mail voting could save about $750,000 each election cycle.

Between now and election season, which will begin picking up in June after the candidate filing period closes, Nago said that state and counties will be focusing on voter education, including making people aware that traditional polling places won’t exist anymore.

“We’re understanding that voters don’t necessarily know that,” Nago said. “Now, your polling place will come to you.”

Registered voters can also expect to get envelopes from the elections office in April asking for signature verification, which will be used to check ballots on election day.

Hawaii County and Maui County have both purchased voting machines similar to Honolulu’s. Jon Henricks, the Hawaii county clerk, says he is confident the Big Island is prepared for the switch. Their machine should arrive in February, he said.

While Kauai purchased a new voting machine at the cost of about $59,000, it’s not the kind that can scan signatures, Kauai County Clerk Jade Fountain-Tanigawa said. The signature verification will still be done by staffers.

“We’re fortunate on Kauai that we have seasoned staff that goes through (the ballots),” she said, adding that if there are any discrepancies the staff call the voter into the office to examine it.

The all-mail voting measure also instructed each county to set up voter service centers, where residents can register to vote, as well as several drop off locations on each island. The counties are still deciding where to place those drop boxes and voter centers, though Takahashi said Honolulu will keep its current location at Kapolei Hale and Honolulu Hale.

Hawaii County hasn’t identified locations for the drop boxes or the voting centers, but said that the boxes should be secured and in a visible area for security.

“You’re asking someone to put ballots in a box, and we can’t have someone monitoring those boxes,” he said. “That’s not feasible.”

Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, hopes that the new system could help improve Hawaii’s low voter turnout. Most voters already cast absentee ballots through the mail.

“The idea here is to make it easier to vote, and to get more people voting,” Lee said at the start of the hearing. “And, in the long run, to save money.”

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