Jo-Ann Adams was so concerned that she would not be able to vote in the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s presidential primary this spring that she sent out an email blast to local party officials Wednesday morning.

“As you can tell by the ‘rant,’ I’m getting a little anxious that this is voter suppression!” she wrote, quickly adding a smiley emoji to show that she was joking … sorta.

“Seriously, though, where in the hell is my ballot?!” she added.

Adams said she was contacted later that day by Lorna Strand, the chair of the Oahu County Democrats, who gave Adams a number to call to get a mail-in ballot.

Kate Stanley, interim chair of the state party, said there have been sporadic complaints from party members worried that they won’t be able to vote in the presidential primary, which was supposed to be held this Saturday until COVID-19 disrupted the space-time continuum of our planet.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii’s 2020 presidential primary ballot for qualified voters in the 1st Congressional District. There is a near identical ballot for CD2. 

Stanley said the party’s contractor, Merriman River Group of Connecticut, offers a telephone number people can call to request a ballot.

Better yet, Matt Fitch of Merriman, who is in Honolulu for the voting process, recommends visiting to learn all one needs to know including to verify the status of a ballot.

Turns out that Adams’ call was indeed received, and Fitch said she was to be contacted as early as Wednesday evening.

Time is running out for other would-be presidential primary voters, however: Requests for ballots must be made no later than this Saturday before the clock strikes midnight.

National Trend?

The Democratic Party of Hawaii’s first-ever mail-in voting comes as the state of Hawaii is conducting its first-ever mail-in voting for the Aug. 8 primary election and the Nov. 3 general election.

In addition to handling the mail-in ballots for the Democratic Party’s presidential primary, Merriman, the election administrator, had planned to take care of the walk-in voting in selective locations throughout the state that was also scheduled for this Saturday. COVID-19 rendered such public gatherings impossible.

Because of the coronavirus and the social-distancing mandates it has prompted, more and more states are exploring vote-by-mail options.

“Early voting and voting by mail have increased across the country over the past two decades,” The Wall Street Journal reported Friday. “Election experts said the coronavirus pandemic could supercharge that trend, overhauling how elections are conducted and accelerating the shift away from voting in person at a local polling site on Election Day.”

Democratic Caucus participants waiting for polls to open at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki
Democratic caucus participants waited for polls to open at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki in 2016. This year, party members are voting in their presidential primary strictly by mail. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress late last week includes $400 million to the states “for coronavirus contingencies involving elections, including voting by mail if states choose.”

COVID-19 has also ripped up the Democrats’ remaining primary and caucus schedule. The New York Times reported Wednesday that 15 states have postponed their presidential contests because of coronavirus.

The list includes Hawaii. After consultation with the Democratic National Committee, Hawaii’s primary (which is open to people who are both registered to vote in Hawaii and also registered as Democrats) was moved to May 23. The party has to receive the mail-in ballots no later than May 22.

(For those wondering, the Hawaii Republican Party did not hold a presidential vote this year. Donald Trump is again the party’s presidential nominee.)

While far less than the 72,000 ballots that were initially mailed out, Fitch said that 28,000 completed ballots have already been returned and Stanley expects the final numbers will exceed 30,000.

That compares favorably with the 23,530 ballots that were cast for Bernie Sanders by Hawaii Democrats four years ago along with the 10,125 ballots that went for Hillary Clinton through a traditional walk-in process. Based on the totals, 17 delegates were awarded to Sanders and eight to Clinton.

There are 24 delegates at stake this year, which will be awarded proportionately. Candidates that receive 15% of the votes cast will earn a delegate and can attend the national convention this summer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is now set for four days beginning on Aug. 17 after originally being scheduled to take place between July 13-16.

Sanders and Joe Biden are just two of 10 candidates on the Hawaii ballot. Voters are free to choose from eight others that have already dropped out, including Hawaii’s own Tulsi Gabbard.

Ranked Choice Voting

Which brings us to another first: The Democratic Party of Hawaii’s presidential primary is the first for a major party in the state to offer ranked choice voting.

RCV, as it’s known, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. In the mail-in presidential primary, voters can rank up to three candidates — that is, first preference, second and third.

Let’s say that a voter prefers Sanders over Biden but worries that, should not enough voters pick the progressive Sanders, another progressive candidate like Elizabeth Warren could prevail over the more moderate Biden.

Hawaii Democratic Caucus voters drop their ballots in a shoebox at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki.
Four years ago, Hawaii Democratic Caucus voters dropped their ballots in a shoebox at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki. That will not be the case in the party’s president primary this year. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“One of the benefits of RCV is that even if many of these candidates drop out, if they get 15% or more of the vote they still get delegates and have them represented at the national convention to help shape the platform,” said Maria Perez, an expert on RCV and a consultant to FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform group. “So in that sense your vote still counts even if you vote for a person no longer running.”

Perez, who is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was a consultant to Hawaii and to the three other states using RVC in their presidential primaries in 2020 — Alaska, Wyoming and Kansas.

Perez said that Hawaii’s Dems made the decision to use RCV long before COVID-19 infected our elections. But she credits the party for being on the “leading edge” of how to conduct a primary election.

“To move toward a voting system that reflects life in the 21st century, voters will really be able to vote their conscience and make it easer for them to participate,” she said. “Their votes are going to count no matter what. Their vote is not wasted.”

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