Thousands of Hawaii voters waited for hours in lines outside of Hawaii’s eight voter centers Tuesday night, a situation that election officials have promised to remedy but one that citizen groups have been warning against for months.
The debate over whether Hawaii had enough voter service centers has been playing out over the past year between groups like Common Cause Hawaii and election officials. It also represents the tension between voters, who want better access, and those same officials, who must balance that with administrative duties and the costs of running an election.
Evidence from other mail voting states, as well as the long lines Tuesday night, suggest Hawaii has room to improve. But there are other issues at play, including the law that set up the voter centers, attitudes toward mail ballots and first-time voters trying to register.
The hours-long wait time was unexpected. Only about 1% of votes cast in the August primary came from the voter service centers. And officials were confident that heading into Election Day, there would be little to worry about.
But in-person turnout nearly quadruped to 3.9% for the general election. While most of those who would cast ballots did so before Election Day, about 8,000 people showed up Tuesday, overwhelming the voter centers at city halls in Downtown Honolulu and Kapolei.
“There were seeds sown of distrust,” said Sandy Ma, citing concerns with the postal system cuts that were floated earlier this year. “So it was foreseeable that people wanted to vote in person. There should have been more in-person places opened up.”
Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, has been trying to get officials statewide to open more voter centers. The state got federal relief funds for elections, most of which had been spent on rent for larger counting centers.
Other mail voting states, like Colorado and Utah, tend to apportion one voter center for every 30,000 to 70,000 voters, according to an analysis from the Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for the adoption of mail voting laws. Oregon, where the law does not have ratios built into the law, and Colorado also tend to apportion drop boxes for every 10,000 to 20,000 voters.
Oahu far exceeds that ratio for voter centers, with two servicing more than 549,000 registered voters. It’s a similar situation on the Big Island, where centers in Hilo and Kona together serve more than 127,000 registered voters in the county.
About 100,000 voters on Maui have access to just one center in Wailuku, where voters at either end may face hours of long drives to get to a voter center.
Only Kauai, Lanai and Molokai appear to fall into the recommended range.
California’s and Colorado’s laws concerning voter centers are some of the most robust, and allow for more centers to open as Election Day nears.
Colorado law requires larger counties to open one voter center for every 30,000 voters, which gets scaled up to one center per 15,000 registered voters on election day. The idea is that it would allow smaller counties to open fewer centers and force larger counties to open more.
“We like to think of it as customer service here, and striking that balance means putting something like this into the law, where you are ensuring fairness but also not overburdening the system,” said Audrey Kline, national policy director for the Vote at Home Institute.
But she points out that a majority of Colorado voters had already been voting by mail when the law passed in 2013, so there was less of a learning curve for the state. Hawaii’s early voting numbers first surpassed those cast on Election Day in 2014.
Hawaii’s law requires just four voter centers, one for each county clerk’s office — which is similar to Oregon’s law on the centers. But Hawaii’s county clerks are able to open more if they wish.
However, the law has no requirement on the proportions of the electorate that each center must serve. Almost all of the decisions regarding the centers have been left up to the counties.
When asked about opening more centers, the county clerks have previously cited costs and whether more would be necessary. The law also requires all the centers to be open at uniform times, which adds costs if a small center were to open in a rural community.
“I think what happened yesterday was outrageous and predictable.” — Attorney Jeff Portnoy
A law that proposed giving the clerks more flexibility with voter center hours failed to clear the Legislature in the 2020 session.
Regarding siting, the clerks have said they located the centers where people need to travel (in the case of the Big Island) or where people are familiar with doing county business (like at Kapolei Hale and at Honolulu Hale).
Ma, of Common Cause, said she plans to ask the Legislature again to require more voter centers when the next session starts in January.
Volunteers across the state reported long lines and wait times, Ma said. And while she commended election officials for their work securing ballots and the election sites, she said they should provide more options to vote.
Wait times were particularly bad on Oahu, where voting finished around 11 p.m. Tuesday. The neighbor island polling locations finished sooner.
Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote a letter to the state in July demanding more voter centers. The organizations asked for three more centers on Oahu and in Maui County, and one more on the Big Island.
“I think what happened yesterday was outrageous and predictable,” attorney Jeff Portnoy, who wrote the letter, said Wednesday. He added that the crowds could have exposed more people to COVID-19, and said again that the group’s letters warned of long lines.
The state Attorney General’s Office shrugged off the group’s concerns in a response letter.
“If you subsequently obtain evidence supporting your contentions, we would be happy to considerate it,” Deputy Attorney General Lori Tanigawa wrote in a July 31 letter.
“They now have the proof,” Portnoy said Wednesday afternoon, adding that he hopes the Legislature takes up the issue.
Rex Quidilla, Honolulu elections administrator, said in an interview late Tuesday night that the office had taken steps to make sure it could handle an increase in voters, but that Tuesday’s turnout was “way beyond anything we could have anticipated.”
He emphasized that voters had 10 days to come in before Election Day, and could also have requested mail ballots long before then.
Several voters waiting in line told Civil Beat that they didn’t receive their ballot, although they voted in the primary election, or were trying to vote for the first time. Quidilla noted that first-time voters may require additional assistance to get them registered, which may mean more time in line.
“Our commitment is to the voter, that we make sure their vote counts,” he said.
Quidilla said the office will use the next two years to find ways to improve.
Scott Nago, the chief elections officer, reiterated that decisions on voter centers are left up to the county clerks, who he said he’d meet with to look for solutions.
“That’s something, once this election is over, we’ll sit down with the county clerks to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Nago told reporters Tuesday night. “That’s just something we have to do after the election. See what went well, what we need to fix, and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Kline, from the Vote At Home Institute, and others have said that, for the most part, Hawaii’s mail voting system appears to be working well. It’s just going through a transitioning phase.
“Practice makes perfect,” she said. “Finding what the community needs, the best way to do outreach, why one site might be better than another — it’s the granular things to work out.”
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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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.