More time to vote and possibly more drop boxes on each island are some of the changes Hawaii voters can expect ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

But beyond that, county elections officials are relatively content with how Hawaii’s first all-mail election went during the August primary, in which voter turnout spiked to 51.2%. While still low compared to elections in the 1950s through the 1980s, it was the highest turnout in two decades.

Hawaii joined other states with high rates of voter turnout that also conduct vote-by-mail elections including Colorado, Utah, Washington and Oregon. 

Washington, D.C., along with Vermont, New Jersey, Nevada, Montana and California also now plan to mail ballots to voters for the general election. 

Officlal ballot drop box located at the Park and Ride in Mililani.
Officials say there may be more places, like this one in Mililani, for voters to drop their ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii elections officials said they aren’t expecting many adjustments ahead of the general election because of the effort they spent preparing the state for the primary election.

Hawaii followed the lead of other vote-by-mail states, offering multiple ways to turn in a ballot. The state implemented a new system to help voters who may need assistance, like disabled individuals, and implemented security measures like barcodes and a signature verification process designed to deter fraud.

There were still some hiccups, such as voters getting ballots for former residents, and questions still linger over how to best help voters in marginalized populations, like the homeless.

Officials have been reluctant to call the process a complete success or speculate what caused the spike in turnout. Some said the ease of mailing a ballot helped to raise turnout. Others speculated that the pandemic and government orders keeping almost everyone inside gave them more time to vote.

“I won’t ever say an election is successful or not,” Hawaii County Clerk John Hendricks said during a recent County Council meeting. “When we give people the opportunity to vote, and we put all the infrastructure out there we can for them to complete that process, then that is a successful election.”

Ballots Coming Earlier

Hawaii election officials will be dealing with one added variable come the general election: the state of the U.S. Postal System.

Voters should expect ballots to arrive between Oct. 5 and Oct. 9 even though state law sets an Oct. 16 deadline for ballots to reach voters’ mailboxes.

The Office of Elections is also asking voters to send their ballots back by Oct. 27, a week before the Nov. 3 general election.

Honolulu elections administrator Rex Quidilla said officials decided on the earlier distribution and return because they are worried there may be delays in postal deliveries since Honolulu sends ballots as third-class mail. No other county uses that rate, he said.

“If there’s any major change between primary and general, it’s the variability that may occur by USPS treatment of non-profit elections mail,” Quidilla said.

Post Office Mail UPS Kaimuki Station Sign
Uncertainty over how the U.S. Postal Service will handle elections mail is prompting officials to send ballots earlier than anticipated. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Officials across the country are still worried about how the USPS might treat election mail even after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told Congress that it would be prioritized.

For Maui County, the decision to move up the mail date was a matter of giving voters more time, instead of dealing with issues from the postal system.

“The earlier the better,” County Clerk Kathy Kaohu said.

Kaohu hopes that some of the issues with slow mail delivery reported on the mainland don’t happen here in Hawaii.

“I know our frontline folks we work with, even the Oahu team and mailing house, they all take what they do seriously,” Kaohu said.

More Drop Boxes

Kauai, Honolulu and Hawaii counties plan to deploy more drop boxes ahead of the general election.

There were 36 across the state for the August primary election. Those drop boxes got the most use on Oahu, where residents cast 17% of ballots using the boxes.

Hawaii largely voted by mail, ranging from 76% of returns on Kauai to 91% on the Big Island.

But state and county elections officials plan to add more drop boxes before November.

On Oahu, four new boxes are expected to be deployed around the urban corridor in Waipahu District Park, Kalihi District Park, Kanewai Park and Kailua District Park. Those locations were picked to fill gaps between the boxes located in Waianae, Kapolei, Pearl City and Honolulu Hale.

Voters in Kauai County could expect about four to six drop boxes in addition to the four already spread across the island, according to county elections administrator Lyndon Yoshioka.

Yoshioka said the county still had to contact property owners to set up agreements on where the boxes could go. Those already there are at fire stations and government buildings. Yoshioka said Kauai plans to deploy the boxes around the time ballots are mailed.

Hawaii County Clerk John Henricks also said there could be more boxes, but didn’t specify the numbers or locations during a recent county council meeting. 

“In a perfect world, we’d have one every 5 miles,” Henricks told the council. “But there’s so much more that goes into that. We want to make sure they’re secure, and I don’t think you ever want to sacrifice security for access.”

Few people used the walk-in voter centers during the primary so it’s unlikely any of the counties would expand hours or locations for voter centers despite calls from service providers and good government groups for expanded access.

In Maui, Honolulu and Hawaii counties, only about 1% of voters used a center. In-person turnout was highest on Kauai at 7%.

‘Light Touches’ To The Process

Hawaii earned an “A” grade from the Brookings Institution in a ranking of states’ preparedness to vote during a pandemic. 

The Brookings overview scored states on their voting policies like mail ballots, applications processes, and ways to submit a ballot. It docked states that throw up barriers to voting, like those that require witness signatures to send mail ballots. 

Hawaii is among states that earned an “A” grade for voting during a pandemic, according to researchers. Screenshot from Brookings Institution

Hawaii earned high marks in all categories, as did other mail-voting states and Washington, D.C., as well as Nevada and California, which both enacted legislation over the summer allowing mail voting for the November general election.

Only Washington earned a perfect score in the Brookings analysis. The Evergreen State allows ballots to be accepted after Election Day so long as they are postmarked by Election Day. The new California law also allows ballots to be accepted up to three days after Election Day so long as they are postmarked on time. 

Hawaii’s law requires that ballots be in possession of the county clerks by 7 p.m. on Election Day, or the votes won’t be counted. Officials received over 900 late ballots that couldn’t be counted for the primary.

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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