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As Honolulu implements its first-ever vote by mail election, some ballots are being sent to people who are no longer living at their registered address – or are no longer living at all.
Hauula resident Thomas Adolpho said he got five ballots for renters who haven’t lived on his property in over a decade. Enele Ongoongotau Jr. said he received a ballot at his Kahuku home for his niece who moved to the mainland last year. Kaneohe resident Jennifer Nakamura has a ballot for her uncle who is incarcerated. And one woman, who didn’t want to be named, said she received a ballot for her father who died five years ago in Utah.
“It is concerning because it could give people the chance to be dishonest,” said Laie resident Halam AhQuin II, who reported receiving three ballots for people he’d never heard of.
Rex Quidilla, elections administrator for the Honolulu City Clerk’s office, said it was inevitable that flaws in the voter registry would reveal themselves in the state’s first all-mail election.
“There are going to be dead people, people who moved away, Britney who went to college but her parents continue to receive their mail and will get a ballot,” Quindilla said.
“All these things are hidden when you have polling places because no one goes out to the polling place and no one corrects the registry. The good part about this is the very act of doing a vote by mail election will expose some of these things and, hopefully, people start to act upon these changes to the registry.”
Honolulu does take its own steps to ensure the voter rolls are as updated as possible, city election officials said. For example, the Hawaii Department of Health periodically sends the elections division a list of recently deceased people to remove from the voter registry.
However, deaths that occur out of state are not included in that, according to Honolulu Elections Specialist Doris Lam. For folks who die outside of Hawaii, the division needs a relative to sign an affidavit, and then the deceased should be unregistered.
Honolulu’s election office also reviews data from the court system to screen out incarcerated individuals and from the U.S. Postal Service to remove voters who have declared a change of address, according to Quidilla.
Still, he said no system is perfect, and people should send ballots back to the city if they receive them in error.
“We try to avail ourselves with the best information we have, but it is – necessarily – incomplete,” Quidilla said. “Keeping the registry updated is a cooperative effort.”
Recipients of inadvertent ballots said the delivery made them feel uneasy.
“There shouldn’t be any kinds of errors if this is our one way to vote now,” said Nakamura, who lives in Kaneohe. “There is an underlying distrust of the city and state to begin with.”
Adolpho said he’s been getting other people’s absentee ballots for years but hasn’t contacted the city clerk’s office. It makes him nervous about the potential for voter fraud.
“The fact that it’s available for that to possibly happen is what we’re trying to get away from,” he said.
Studies show voter fraud almost never happens in the United States. From 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation out of a billion votes cast, according to research by Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
And despite claims from President Donald Trump that voter fraud was rampant in the 2016 election, a Dartmouth University study found “no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”
“Voter fraud is so exceedingly rare,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Hawaii.
That is the case nationally as well as locally, according to Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“We have not received any cases in which someone is accused of receiving an absentee/mail-in ballot intended for someone else, filling it out, forging a signature, and mailing it in,” he said in an email. “No such cases received from Honolulu police or anyone else.”
Filling out someone else’s ballot is a felony punishable by a fine between $1,000 and $5,000 and up to two years in prison, Tam said.
Even if someone were to attempt it, the system has safeguards, election officials said. Ballots must be signed, and the signature needs to match the one in government records such as the driver’s license database.
The signed ballots are run through a machine that is designed to detect discrepancies, Tam said. Ballots that are flagged as a non-match will be reviewed by staff members.
If the signature cannot be confirmed as a match, the voter will receive a letter in the mail. They will then have until five days after primary day on Aug. 8 to remedy the situation and have their vote counted, Quidilla said. Otherwise, the ballot wouldn’t be counted.
“Any signature that does not match and is not confirmed by the voter may indicate voter fraud and would be escalated to the proper authorities,” the Hawaii Office of Elections says on its website.
Honolulu consulted with other states that instituted voting by mail, including Oregon and Washington, to learn best practices, according to Quidilla. In general, the city keeps voters registered until they know for sure that they shouldn’t be, he said.
“It’s a very, very serious matter removing individuals from the voter registry,” he said.
In other states, so-called “purges” of voter rolls have caused the removal of legitimate voters from lists. The result can be “mass disenfranchisement,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Georgia last year, the state eliminated over 300,000 names from its list of registrants. Officials said it was “list maintenance” to remove people who were dead or had moved away. However, more than 120,000 of them were nixed because they either hadn’t voted in recent elections or hadn’t responded to state notices, according to a lawsuit.
After pushback from voting rights advocates – including Fair Fight Action, a group founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – Georgia reinstated 22,000 of those individuals. The removal of the remaining 98,000, however, was reaffirmed by a federal judge.
In 2016, over 200,000 voters were axed from the New York City rolls ahead of the presidential primary. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the New York City Board of Elections, and a resulting settlement required the board to overhaul its procedures “to protect New Yorkers’ access to the ballot box.”
A 2017 paper by academics from Stanford University and other elite schools estimated that only 0.02% of the votes cast in the 2012 presidential primary were “double votes.”
Examining the tradeoff between eliminating those potential duplicates or purging the voter rolls, the authors found that a purge would “eliminate about 300 registrations used to cast a seemingly legitimate vote for every one registration used to cast a double vote.”
Quidilla said he doesn’t have a record of how many people contacted his office to report a ballot that wasn’t intended for them, but he indicated it’s not many. Most people call to request replacement ballots for themselves, he said.
All five people Civil Beat spoke to who received accidental ballots said they didn’t know what to do with them. The ballot envelope doesn’t provide directions for that scenario.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to send it to him, throw it away or send it back (to the city),” Nakamura said.
People who receive a ballot for someone that does not reside at their address should write “not at this address” on it and place it back in the mail, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections.
“If you don’t do anything about it, the record stays the same,” Lam said. “You’ll keep getting it.”
The city should consider adding a note to the ballot envelope with instructions for unintended recipients, Ma said. They should also work to tie the voter registry to other government databases that people are more proactive about updating, such as the one for Medicaid, she said.
Overall, Ma said extra ballots going out are a minor issue compared to larger voting issues like registration and turnout. Hawaii doesn’t have automatic voter registration at driver’s license centers. A bill that would have instituted that became a casualty of COVID-19 disruptions at the Hawaii Legislature.
And only 52.7% of voters cast ballots in the 2018 statewide general election and 38.6% in that year’s primary, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections.
“In this country where voter turnout is so low, especially low in Hawaii, we should not be worried about voter fraud,” Ma said. “We need to be concerned about increasing voter turnout.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
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