Lisa Darcy tries every election to get at least a few more friends of hers on Maui to vote.
This year, as Hawaii rolled out its first all-mail election, that effort intersected with the work she has done with the homeless community for several years through her nonprofit, Share Your Mana.
But it proved to be a challenge every step of the way. Sweeps, ID laws, mail access and transportation all became barriers to homeless individuals casting their ballots and hampered the ability of service providers like Darcy who help them.
Those issues have all been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as well as the recent threat of Hurricane Douglas.
With regular sweeps of homeless encampments, it’s hard to tell what district someone should be registered in. Darcy said it’s also been a challenge tracking down individuals who move often.
Mail access is another issue. If someone doesn’t have friends or family to get their mail and they aren’t registered for mail delivery at a shelter, the only option is general delivery at a post office.
Plus, registering and getting mail usually require some form of government ID, which for some individuals who may have lost those documents could take months to replace, Darcy said.
However, ID requirements for registration in Hawaii aren’t as strict as in other states.
In 2016, the Legislature added a provision to the law that allows the counties to register potential voters who don’t have a government ID or social security card but meet registration requirements, like being 18 years old.
While state and county elections officials have met with providers on Oahu, outreach and group voter registration efforts have been hampered by the virus, according to Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care.
In an email, Thielen reported similar issues like acquiring an ID and mail access.
Darcy has used her P.O. Box in Kahului to get mail ballots to some of the homeless she works with on Maui.
And even if someone is able to get registered and has mail access, getting information to make an informed vote is still difficult.
“It’s an absolute cliff of information,” she said. “People might not have data on their phones. They can’t rely on the internet to get that information.”
Some people Darcy has talked to on Maui still think they’ll go to their normal polling place to cast ballots. And trying to figure all that out while thinking about getting by is another stressor.
“They’re compounded by disabilities, mental health issues, just plain poverty issues. If you’re thinking about getting food for the day, you won’t put anything else in front of that,” Darcy said.
Like voters with disabilities, Darcy feels that government officials haven’t done enough to tackle voting access issues facing Hawaii’s homeless population.
With a statewide homeless population of 6,400, Hawaii ranks No. 2 in the nation for rates of homeless individuals per 10,000 people in the state.
Depending on where they reside on the island, homeless people might need to travel a great distance to Maui’s only voter service center in Wailuku. The subject of how many voting centers to set up in the state has been debated in the last several months.
Hawaii Elections Chief Scott Nago said he believes the counties have their reasoning behind the numbers and locations of centers already established.
The county clerks have previously said they positioned the centers in population centers like Wailuku, Honolulu, Lihue and Hilo because residents would likely need to travel to those areas for other business and could access the centers along the way.
Now, Share Your Mana as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii have signed on to a letter asking for more voter centers on Maui and suggesting other ways to improve voter access.
Lance Collins, a Maui attorney who has litigated other voter rights cases, and Wookie Kim of the ACLU sent a letter to Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu July 24 asking for two more centers on Maui as well as for bus fare to be waived for individuals traveling to one of those centers.
Collins and Kaohu met Friday to discuss some solutions. In addition to those listed in the letter, the parties also suggested a shuttle service to the Wailuku voter center using county buses or using the clerk’s office for people who lack mail access, according to Collins.
That would allow a voter to spend more time making decisions on who to vote for as opposed to rushing through the ballot on a voting machine at one of the centers.
Collins walked away from the meeting feeling positive, though he noted that there’s no decision made yet on changes and any change would likely be for the general election in November.
“It seems there’s some willingness to make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote,” Collins said.
Kaohu wanted to open at least one more center in Hana but couldn’t because Hawaii’s election law requires all centers to be open at the same times.
A separate group is also calling for greater voter access.
Honolulu Attorney Jeff Portnoy is representing Common Cause as well as other groups that advocate for voting rights nationally. Portnoy and the groups are calling for more voter centers statewide, enough to at least equal the number of district courthouses in the state.
“We’re not demanding particular places, just greater access,” Portnoy said, adding that community centers or satellite city halls could be alternate locations.
In regards to homeless voters, Hawaii is not alone.
Seattle, which has the third largest homeless population in the U.S., has similar problems when it comes to getting homeless people out to vote even as Washington nears the end of its first decade of all-mail voting.
Hillary Coleman, a community projects manager at the Seattle/King County Homeless Coalition, says the biggest problem is getting homeless voters access to enough information and research to make informed voting decisions.
The elections office there puts out a non-partisan voter guide, something Hawaii has eschewed in the past, but even that is not enough.
Being able to do research from home isn’t a luxury the unsheltered have access to.
Like elections officials in other states who advocate for in-person voting sites, Coleman said that access to voter centers in King County has been important, but the coronavirus has meant the county will pare down its centers from six to just two this election season.
Like Hawaii, getting Seattle’s homeless registered and then getting them ballots is challenging, but some changes to Washington’s laws have made it easier.
In Washington, voters don’t need a residential address to register, they just need to provide an address so they can be registered in a district.
“No person registering to vote, who meets all the qualifications of a registered voter in the state of Washington, shall be disqualified because he or she lacks a traditional residential address,” the Washington law states.
The Oregon secretary of state’s office puts out similar guidance.
Hawaii’s law isn’t so specific, only stating that a residence, as far as the elections law goes, is a fixed habitation that a person has the intent of returning to when they leave.
Mail access remains a struggle, but a service provider in the heart of Seattle offers free mail access. Coleman says it serves thousands of people.
To bolster outreach efforts, King County elections officials partner with a network of nonprofits and community-based organizations to fan out and register potential voters.
“They smartly realized that people with connections in the community will be in the best position to help understand access to voting,” Coleman said.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.