A Vital Democracy Demands Fairness And Participation - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Sandy Ma

Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan democracy organization focused on creating an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest and not special interests. Common Cause Hawaii is dedicated to holding power accountable.

Few in Hawaii doubt that the inaugural vote-by-mail achieved its goal of increasing voter turnout.

The 2016 presidential primary voter turnout was a measly 34.8%, the lowest voter turnout in the nation. In contrast, the 2020 presidential primary voter turnout under the new vote-by-mail system was 51.2%, which is an increase of approximately 16.4% over 2016, when comparing the election results on the state Office of Elections’ website.

Certainly, vote-by-mail works for voters who have stable, long-standing addresses to which ballots can be mailed. Unfortunately, vote-by-mail does not work equally well for all. Housing-insecure voters, voters needing language assistance and those incarcerated who have not lost their right to vote are just a few of the voters that a mail-in voting system does not adequately reach, according to civil rights organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and even proponents of mail-in ballots like Vote at Home.

As of January, Hawaii had the second highest rate of homelessness in the nation based on the most recent Point-In-Time count. With the advent of the pandemic and the decimation of Hawaii’s economy, homelessness will likely increase.

It is especially difficult for homeless/houseless/unsheltered citizens to register to vote and designate an address where a ballot may be mailed. The housing insecure have no long-term physical addresses where mail may be received. If they are permitted to use the USPS General Delivery box, they will need identification, which they may not have if it was lost on the streets or during government sweeps. Further, General Delivery boxes are often time limited, which may prevent receipt of ballots, as people may have exhausted their temporary use of the boxes.

Vote By Mail Ballot UPS Collection Box Elections 2020
Thousands of voters in Hawaii may face challenges with their ballots  due to language barriers or living situations. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

As for limited English proficient voters, currently only the City and County of Honolulu is notifying voters of language translation services for ballots in Ilocano and Mandarin, ostensibly under the federal Voting Rights Act. However, there are significant LEP populations, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s April 2016 information on Non-English Speaking Population in Hawaii.

In the counties of Maui and Kauai, there are 15,900 Ilocano speakers (91.4% are 18 years and older), 8,500 Tagalog speakers (92.9% are 18 years and older), and 4,600 Spanish speakers (85.1% are 18 years and older), and a significant fraction statewide of these populations are citizens: 67.8% of 58,000 Ilocano speakers are citizens; 78.9% of the 58,000 Tagalog speakers are citizens; and 84.8% of the 26,200 Spanish speakers are citizens.

LEP voters on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii are not notified (unlike on Oahu) of translation services for ballots despite there being a specific Hawaii law (Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 321) requiring them to be provided with meaningful access to services, programs and activities, of which there is none more fundamental than voting.

For those who are incarcerated but who still have the right to vote, such as misdemeanants, pretrial detainees and others, this right is hard to secure with voting by mail. Education and information are vital for anyone to be able to vote and to make an informed vote.

The quantity and/or quality of information provided to detainees is unknown, given that we are operating under a new process, informing them about the importance of voting, how to register to vote and how to vote by mail. How readily accessible voting materials are to detainees is a further unknown. This includes information about voter registration and candidate and charter amendment materials.

These materials matter. Detainees have to register to vote to receive their ballots, make informed decisions to participate in our democracy and return their voted ballots in a timely manner for the ballots to be counted. They have this constitutional right and are entitled to exercise it.

We must ensure that vote-by-mail allows the least among us to vote with similar ease as the most of us. “Protecting the rights of even the least individual among us is basically the only excuse the government has for even existing,” said Ronald Reagan.

Vote-by-mail cannot just be reserved for the segment of the population that can afford a stable home and speaks English as its first language. Democracy is a representative government of all the people and must be accessible for all the people. If Hawaii is going to work for all of us, we must ensure that mail-in voting truly works for everyone.

Editor’s note: This Community Voice was co-authored by the ACLU of Hawaii, attorney Lance Collins, Common Cause Hawaii, the Community Alliance on Prisons – Hawaii and the League of Women Voters of Hawaii.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


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About the Author

Sandy Ma

Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan democracy organization focused on creating an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest and not special interests. Common Cause Hawaii is dedicated to holding power accountable.


Latest Comments (0)

Precinct voting would work better...just walk in to neighborhood school and vote...ID not even strictly required.  No need to have a settled address where you get mail. Just go vote. A polling place can even be set up in the prison.

Haleiwa_Dad · 1 year ago

"Unfortunately, vote-by-mail does not work equally well for all" - neither does a society in which taxpayers must pay for social services, medical, food, etc. for the "housing-insecure voters" who don't contribute a dime but we do it nonetheless.  Sorry it's an unpopular point of view but it's true.  Also, NOTHING works perfectly for everyone, but if it works for the majority of everyone, then it's a good thing.  

muffintop808 · 1 year ago

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