Hawaii’s first all-mail election will be spared from many of the growing pains that other states experienced as they blazed the trail years ago to conduct elections by mail as a way to boost voter turnout and save taxpayers money.

The Aloha State, which was already moving in this direction, will also likely avoid some of the mistakes that other states have made in their hurried rush to shift to all-mail elections in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 700,000 ballots have already gone out, ballot drop boxes will be rolling out soon, elections officials have implemented social distancing measures at their facilities and have set aside federal funds for safety equipment.

But like the four other states that already have all-mail elections, Hawaii is expected to learn important lessons from the Aug. 8 primary and recalibrate accordingly. 

Good-government groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters as well as concerned citizens are already raising concerns over mail access, transportation and accessibility for disabled individuals as roadblocks to voter access — especially for those in rural communities who have historically seen low voting rates.

Vote By Mail Ballot Close Up Elections 2020
Hawaii appears more prepared than other states to jump to a mail voting system, but policy debates still surround the location and amount of in-person voting sites. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

“It’s hard for us to guess how this election will turn out,” said Jade Fountain-Tanigawa, the Kauai County clerk. “If the primary is excessively busy, we’re prepared to make changes.”

The county clerks, who have been delegated the responsibility of implementing the system by the state, are relatively content with the number of voter service centers available. Some say the law has made it difficult to open more centers, where the public can vote in-person before the election, register to vote and drop off ballots. But efforts to change that law failed earlier this year.

For the primary, there are eight centers spread across the islands. Kauai has one in Lihue, Oahu has one in downtown Honolulu and one in Kapolei. Maui has one in Wailuku; Molokai one in Kaunakakai; and Lanai has one, in Lanai City. And on the Big Island, there’s one in Hilo and another in Kona.

There are also 36 drop box locations across the islands.

Sandy Ma, the director of Common Cause Hawaii, said she’s heard from her counterparts in other states that rushed their mail voting process because of the pandemic. They reported long lines in historically underrepresented areas, she said.

“I’m certainly not saying open up polling places again,” Ma said. “But do an analysis of where the service centers can do the most good.”

Some hope mail voting will boost Hawaii’s low voter turnout. More than half the state already votes by mail, a trend which has steadily increased since the late 1990s.

Fountain-Tanigawa said officials feel comfortable with just one center in Lihue because of the county’s five other drop box locations spread over the island. County clerks from other islands felt similarly.

Kauai was initially going to be the pilot for the state’s all-mail voting system. The county was excited to test the program because it could help expand voter access and cut costs, Fountain-Tanigawa said. But the law changed in 2019, and now Kauai, along with the other three counties, are diving in together.

Pandemic Adds Costs

Proposals for a mail voting system failed since at least 2013, but one finally cleared the Legislature in 2019.

The state Office of Elections and the counties got just over $1 million to start up the new system under Act 136, the all-mail voting law. In the long run, the state is expected to save $750,000 each election.

Part of the appropriation went to pay for postage on mail ballots so voters don’t need to put stamps on their reply envelopes.

The pandemic has created new challenges, like how to spread workers far enough apart while they sort ballots and keep them from getting infected while handling the mail. 

“If staff get infected, that could put a couple days’ pause on operations,” Glen Takahashi, Honolulu city clerk, told lawmakers at a recent hearing. “I hope that’s not in the crystal ball, but that’s my concern.”

Hawaii got $3 million in federal relief funds to help elections officials deal with the pandemic, of which the state and counties have so far decided how to spend $1.9 million. 

The single largest expense from that is $1.1 million in rent the state is paying to use the Hawaii Convention Center as the state’s counting center. 

The state and counties have also spent $422,000 on voter education campaigns. About $350,000 of that went to Oahu Publications Inc., parent company of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which has been running ads with voting instructions and information. 

Scott Nago, state elections chief, told lawmakers in June that the newspaper ads were targeted at elderly populations, which in Hawaii tend to vote at higher rates than other age groups.

Some $80,000 is earmarked for health and safety supplies. The city elections office is renting air purifiers for four weeks leading up to the primary and general elections at a cost of $9,900.

Restricted Mail Access On ‘A Damn Big Island’

While the vast majority of voters will have easy access to ballots that come right to their mailboxes, in most rural communities, not having a mailbox is the norm, according to Barbara Dalton, a former postmaster for the Kau region in the southern part of Hawaii island.

Most residents instead get their mail through post office boxes, which often have long waitlists. Residents could also pitch their own mailbox and request delivery or rent a box from a private mail service on the island.

“Those are pricey though,” Dalton warns. “And economically, a lot of people can’t afford that in a lot of these communities.”

On Hawaii island, those communities are also the farthest from the two voter service centers. It’s just over a 90-minute drive to get from Naalehu at the Big Island’s southern point to the voter service center in Kona.

This map from the state Office of Elections shows the locations of voter service centers and drop boxes.

When asked about extra voter service centers, Dalton suggested adding another in Naalehu or Ocean View, and one more to serve the north end of the island. She also suggested adding another in Puna.

Patti Cook, a Waimea resident, said volunteers were inundated with questions from Waimea residents on how the mail voting system works for six hours at a recent Saturday event. 

“If it was a regular election year it might not be quite so challenging, but in the middle of this pandemic when people are very distracted, getting through and having them focus on this is very hard,” Cook said.

Dalton and Cook aren’t alone in their concerns. On June 5, the Hawaii island delegation to the Legislature sent a letter to County Clerk Jon Henricks asking for more of those centers.

“Constituents in rural areas with poor mail access, houseless individuals, those with disabilities and constituents needing language assistance benefit from safe and healthy in-person voting options,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, penned by Rep. Joy San Buenaventura and signed by 10 other legislators.

“Hours of travel just to reach one of two planned VSCs puts a burden on our kupuna.”

The county has drop box locations in rural areas like Captain Cook, Pahoa and Naalehu, but Cook worries that might not be enough.

“There’s only six on our island,” she said. “And we’re a damn big island.”

In an interview with Civil Beat, Henricks said the centers are located in areas that residents from rural areas need to travel to for government or medical services or for shopping.

“You increase the odds that people not close by would be traveling to areas for those services,” Henricks said. “When you have a limited amount of centers, it makes sense to put them in areas that offer necessary services.”

He also said the county clerks had to consider a law that requires all the centers to be open at the same time. That law hamstrung Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu’s efforts to get another center in Hana.

Several measures to give county clerks more flexibility in opening voter service centers failed this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hana, on Maui’s rural east side, is about two hours away from the nearest voter service center in Wailuku and is also part of an area that has low voter turnout and low mail return rates.

The center could be open for less days and hours than the other three centers, but that wasn’t workable under the current law. 

“There was no flexibility,” Kaohu said.

Senate Bill 2794, which made it the furthest this session, was an omnibus bill that would have expanded the hours voter service centers can be open as well as prohibit candidates from offering assistance to voters. The measure was mysteriously killed in the last days of the Legislature’s extended session in early July.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, who has authored various election measures and also worked on the mail-voting law, said he’s open to giving the counties flexible hours. 

“A part of the reason for giving the counties responsibility is to make them responsible for local circumstances,” Rhoads said.

Voting Center Sites Debated

Like the voter service centers in Hilo and Kona, centers on the other islands are also located in urban areas. Many also previously served as early walk-in sites.

They are also sited in areas that already have relatively high voter turnout or those where voters already cast ballots by mail. Areas of urban Honolulu had the highest rates of mail voting in the last two primary elections.

House District 26, which runs from Downtown to McCully, had the highest mail turnout at 67% in 2018. Conversely, rural areas like Waianae and parts of the North Shore had mail turnout between 40% and 45%. Those are also areas that would need to travel the farthest to get to a voter service center. 

Oahu has drop boxes in some of those areas, including Kahuku and Waianae, along with those in Mililani Mauka, Pearl City, Kaneohe and Hawaii Kai.

While unveiling one of those boxes Tuesday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell reiterated calls from many officials and voting experts to not let voter centers be a replacement for polling sites.

“We are discouraging coming to the hale unless you absolutely have to,” Caldwell said, referring to the centers at Kapolei Hale and Honolulu Hale.

Ma, of Common Cause, has concerns over how residents in rural areas, both on Oahu and the neighbor islands, can engage with the voting process. She’s also worried about disabled populations or those needing special language assistance.

“For these segments of the population where it’s not easy access to a mailbox and it’s difficult to drive into town, and people don’t often drive into town where voter service centers are located, it creates a real hardship to exercise your constitutional right to vote,” she said.

Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi holds a ‘mail in ballot’ during press conference held at Honolulu Hale.
Glen Takahashi said the City and County of Honolulu plans to evaluate how the elections system performed after the Aug. 8 primary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

When asked if centers were considered in rural areas, Takahashi, the city clerk, said that in past elections, there were more absentee voting sites. But over the years, usage of those sites declined as more Oahu voters moved to mail voting.

Takahashi acknowledged that the current sites for voter service centers is far from certain rural neighborhoods.

“If you live in Laie, of course it’s inconvenient,” he said, adding that voters have two years to register and 10 days to go to one of the centers before election day.

Takahashi said the city looked to Washington and Oregon, which both had all-mail systems since the early 2000s, for perspectives on how to run the centers. He noted that King County, which includes the Seattle area, had just two voter service centers.

“We’re not going into this without studying it,” Takahashi said.

‘Don’t Be Stingy’ With Drop Boxes

Phil Keisling likens Hawaii’s path to all-mail voting to Oregon’s, where he served as secretary of state while shepherding its burgeoning all-mail system in the late 1990s. Oregon’s counties had been moving toward mail voting for local elections before the system became law in 2000.

Hawaii has also been moving in that direction for years. Since 1998, Hawaii voters have been increasingly reliant on absentee voting, including mail voting, which surpassed traditional precinct turnout in 2014. 

“I think the evolution in Hawaii is going on a similar path,” said Keisling, now retired.

Hawaii already adopted many of the recommendations Keisling has for states looking to jump to all-mail voting like reaching out to voters and sending signature verification cards. 

Hawaii is ahead in other areas too. The Office of Elections has a ballot tracking system and paid for postage on all the ballots that will go out this election season.  

Striking the balance between jumping to mail balloting and ensuring every voter has access is an issue policymakers and election officials will continue to struggle with.

“Where does that last 5% of doing everything you can become prohibitively expensive?” said Keisling. “People wrestled with that and will continue to wrestle with that.”

Still, Keisling said officials shouldn’t underestimate the need for in-person voting options. When Oregon first rolled out the mail voting system, there were just 70 drop boxes. Now, there are over 300 in the state of over 3 million voters.

“We learned, don’t be stingy about it,” he said.

Primary Election Official Ballot drop box located at Kaneohe District park.
The state plans to place 36 drop boxes like this one throughout the islands. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Keisling estimates that about 65% to 70% of voters choose to drop off their ballots at a county drop box location instead of mailing it.

Elections officials should pay attention to the usage of voter centers over time to determine what the mix of those centers and drop boxes should be, according to a paper from the Vote at Home Institute.

The paper also recommends adjusting that ratio to steer voters toward utilizing certain voting options over others. For example, the use of drop boxes dropped 10% after the Washington Legislature approved funding for return postage on ballots.

For the voter service centers, other states have strict guidelines. Certain counties in California require one for every 10,000 voters. The City and County of Denver, Colorado, with nearly 500,000 voters, has a voter service center available for about every 30,000 voters.

That gets ramped up to 15,000 voters per center as Election Day draws closer.

To a certain extent voters need to take some responsibility for their own ballots, and prepare in advance if something goes awry, Keisling said.

“You can’t say, ‘Whatever the voter asks for, the voter gets’ under all circumstances,” Keisling said.

But it also means elections officials need to consider circumstances under which voters may need assistance. Keisling said that Oregon has election workers that will come to meet voters who need assistance with their ballots or are homebound.

That’s a tradeoff for opening more voter centers that may go underutilized. Ideally, the system reaches a point where everyone’s covered, even those in unusual cases.

“Leave no one behind,” Kiesling said. “That’s always a challenge for elections officials.”

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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