More than 300,000 ballots have been returned to elections officials as of Thursday, putting Hawaii on track for a record number of votes cast.

But as voters have put their signed ballots into their mailboxes or stuffed them into the drop boxes scattered throughout the state as it holds its first all-mail election, some have wondered how secure the whole process is.

While voter fraud is a serious concern, it’s not inherent to an all-mail voting system. Hawaii elections officials have taken cues from other all-mail states like Oregon and Washington to protect against instances of fraud. 

2020 mail in ballot officlal ballot drop box located in Mililani’s Park and Ride facility.
Elections officials across the state have taken steps to beef up ballot box security ahead of the 2020 elections. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

It all starts with a barcode.

When county elections offices receive ballots, the envelopes are put through a scanning machine that reads a unique barcode number on the front of the return envelopes.

“It’s the guardrail against double voting,” Honolulu elections administrator Rex Quidilla said.

Honolulu relies on a database of those barcodes and registration records which the machine scans whenever it reads a ballot. Even if a voter is sent multiple ballots, the machine should be able to check that one has been cast and cancel the rest.

For example, if a voter tried to mail a ballot and then cast another vote at a walk-in site on the same day, only their in-person ballot would be counted because it was received first.

It also protects against someone trying to use counterfeit ballots and envelopes.

“If someone happens to duplicate a ballot and barcode, we’d catch that,” Quidilla said. “We would see numerous instances of bar codes, and obviously, that would signal something is amiss.”

Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi holds a sample Mail in ballot during press conference held at Honolulu Hale.
Maui and Hawaii Counties have acquired signature verification machines similar to Honolulu’s. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The county’s machines also check signatures on the return envelopes against election records. The ones that don’t match are put through at least two rounds of manual verification by elections staff.

Quidilla said staffers have even pulled signed affidavits from when voters first registered to see if signatures match.

Many of the procedures, including having the signature on the outside of the ballot envelope, are also used in other states, like Washington, which has conducted all-mail elections since 2011.

The exception is Kauai County, which up until this year has verified signatures by hand using a handheld barcode reader, according to Lyndon Yoshioka, the Kauai County elections administrator.

Maui and Hawaii counties purchased machines similar to Honolulu’s to rapidly scan ballots. Because of cost, Kauai went with the junior version, as Yoshioka described it.

He said the other counties’ machines cost an estimated $250,000 per machine plus yearly maintenance fees.

“A jurisdiction of our size would have a difficult time justifying that type of expenditure,” Yoshioka said. 

Jade Fountain-Tanigawa previously told state lawmakers that Kauai’s machine costs about $59,000 apiece. 

While the scanning machine still requires staff to view each signature, it gives them the ability to go through ballots quicker, which has allowed the office to hire one fewer staffer for this year’s elections, Yoshioka said. 

The four counties have spent more than $4 million combined in this year’s elections on things like extra staff, replacement equipment and computer upgrades.

Part of those funds came from Act 136, the mail voting law, which doled out $830,000 to the counties. Honolulu used some of that to acquire half-ton drop boxes that voters could use if they don’t feel comfortable sticking their ballots in the mail.

The boxes are the same ones used in Washington and Oregon that are equipped with fire suppressant devices that suck oxygen from the boxes, according to Quidilla.

Counting Votes

Once ballots get to the counting centers, they go through a two-step process to be counted, Hawaii Elections Chief Scott Nago said.

First, a worker removes the ballot from the return envelope that has the voter’s name and signature on it. Then the ballot is removed from its secrecy sleeve and set aside for counting. 

It’s done in two steps to make sure workers can never match ballots with individuals.

Zakiya Potts from the office of the City Clerk Elections Division City & County of Honolulu packs ballot envelopes into bins, after verification and validation checks, on Friday, August 7, 2020. The ballots will be sent to the election board for counting. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Zakiya Potts from the Honolulu Elections Division packs ballot envelopes into bins after verification and validation checks, Friday. The ballots will be sent to the election board for counting. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

As many as 200 to 300 state elections workers are helping to count ballots across the four counting centers in the state in Honolulu, Hilo, Lihue and Wailuku. Nago said the process is overseen by observers from each political party as well as independent organizations like the League of Women Voters.

Ballots are fed through a machine and never counted by hand. But Nago said workers take a sample of ballots on election night to manually audit the results coming from the machine.

For the first time, there will also be a manual audit using a sample of all ballots cast following election day. Nago said the longer period is due to the counting centers likely taking longer to sort each ballot by precinct.

This will also be the first election under a new law that requires any race that’s closer than 0.25% of turnout or 100 votes to be automatically recounted.

In 2018, Honolulu Councilman Tommy Waters appeared to have lost the election for City Council District 4 by just 22 votes. The state Supreme Court later invalidated the election because of late-coming ballots, and Waters went on to win a special election against Trevor Ozawa.

Another close race last year was the House District 30 race between Rep. Romy Cachola and Sonny Ganaden, who lost by 51 votes. They are having a rematch this year.

Another race that’s expected to be close in Saturday’s primary is for Honolulu mayor. Polls are projecting Rick Blangiardi to take the top spot but it looks close for the No. 2 spot to advance to a runoff in the November general election. Keith Amemiya, Colleeen Hanabusa and Kym Pine were within 3% of each other in the latest Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll.

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