Hawaii is again the envy of the nation. But not for reasons you think.

Hawaii is not being envied for our white sandy beaches, abundant sunshine, and famous aloha spirit. Instead, our statewide all mail-in system is being touted as the cure-all that could save lives and preserve democracy, when voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Discussions are currently underway at the state and national levels about the need to provide voters with the option to vote at home during this public health crisis.

Hawaii was fortuitously forward thinking in 2019 when it enacted the statewide vote-by-mail law, but policy alone without proper implementation does not ensure a law’s success.

Much has been made of the fact that a majority of the voters were already voting early — either via absentee ballot or by walk-in — when Hawaii’s statewide vote-by-mail law was adopted. This, however, does not mean that the transition to 100% mail-in voting would be simple, because voters still had the option of voting in-person at their polling locations on election day.

Signature capture cards from the Office of Elections were mailed to the three neighbor island counties last month to authenticate signatures for vote by mail. The same is being done for the City and County of Honolulu. 

Under Hawaii’s new vote-by-mail law, there will no longer be traditional polling locations. There will, instead, only be eight voter service centers statewide for people to vote in-person, same-day register to vote, or perform other necessary voter services.

Just because we have in the past few elections had over 50% voting early and absentee does not necessarily mean that we can easily transition to 100% voting by mail. Nothing is easy in the middle of a public health crisis.

Comprehensive planning will be critically important for Hawaii’s all mail-in Aug. 8 primary and Nov. 3 general elections to be successful.

Much Has To Be Done

The state Office of Elections and county clerks’ offices have shared responsibilities for the administration of our upcoming elections. To date they have been slow to share information as to how they are safeguarding our voting infrastructure for the upcoming elections during these COVID-19 times.

The state has even received approximately $3.3 million in federal election security funding from the March CARES Act “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 Federal election cycle.”

The 2020 elections are incredibly significant — on the federal, state, and county levels. They are being billed as the most consequential elections of our lifetimes.

The state Office of Elections and county clerks’ offices must ensure that the voting and elections infrastructure are safe for the public and the elections staff given these fraught times.

Much has to be done. For the mere eight voter service centers that will be providing in-person voting services, the state Office of Elections and county clerks’ offices must answer how lines will be kept to a minimum, how social distancing will be ensured for public health, how voting equipment will be cleaned, how elections staff will be trained, whether elections staff will be provided with PPE, and more.

Over 40% of our voters are accustomed to voting in-person, and our elections will be occurring during the fall and winter months when a second wave of the coronavirus may be occurring, as predicted by medical experts.

To further safeguard the elections, the state Office of Elections and county clerks should consider having drop boxes, where voters may deposit their completed ballots, co-located in places that provide essential services, such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

To prevent long lines from forming at drop boxes, as they are only required to be open five business days prior to elections, counties should consider having the drop boxes be opened earlier. Of course, drop boxes must be routinely and thoroughly cleaned for everyone’s safety.

The public should be alerted to the fact that ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on election day, and postmarks do not count!

It would be prudent to use some portion of the $3.3 million in election security funding from the CARES Act to secure additional and larger voter service centers, additional drop boxes, PPE, cleaning supplies, and public health training of elections staff.

Nothing is easy in the middle of a public health crisis.

These are just a few common-sense recommendations for the safety and security of our upcoming elections.

Planning for this major transition to voting 100% by mail was never going to be easy. To add to this difficult task is that it must now be done during a pandemic.

Nevertheless, it can be done provided we have careful, thoughtful, thorough planning. There are even federal monies available to assist.

The state Office of Elections and county clerks must start planning now and keep the public well-informed, as we are the ones who have to have confidence in their decisions to vote in the middle of a pandemic. There is not much time as elections are rapidly approaching; the Aug. 8 primary is just three months away.

We can be the envy of the nation for our successful, safe, and democratic vote-by-mail elections.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Sandy Ma
    Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan democracy organization focused on creating an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest and not special interests. Common Cause Hawaii is dedicated to holding power accountable.