Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago plans to ask the Legislature for changes to Hawaii’s mail voting system that could make it easier for officials to open more in-person voting sites and give voters more time to fill in their ballots.

In a report to the state Elections Commission, Nago said the Office of Elections plans to propose several measures. Chief among them is one that would give county election officials more flexibility than currently allowed under the law to open more voter centers, an issue that came to a head on Nov. 3 when thousands of voters waited for hours in lines outside Hawaii’s eight voter centers — especially at Kapolei and Honolulu Hale.

Right now, all centers must be open at uniform times for a 10-day period before Election Day. Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu has previously said that hampered efforts to open another voter center in Hana, where some residents made a more than two-hour drive to cast ballots at the island’s only center in Wailuku in November.

State of Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago at hearing on Mail in Ballot.
Scott Nago, Hawaii’s elections chief, plans to ask state lawmakers for changes to Hawaii’s voting law that would allow for more voting sites to open. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Nago said the idea is to establish more voter centers in the days leading up to and on Election Day. Other mail voting states, like Colorado, ramp up the number of in-person voting options in the days before an election.

Despite calls from good government and voting rights groups, officials stuck with just eight centers all the way through Election Day, citing that state law requiring uniform times as one impediment to opening more.

Nago said at a commission meeting Tuesday that the proposal would still require clerks to open a certain number of voter centers for the 10-day period, but it would give them flexibility in opening additional centers on Election Day.

The elections office proposal is similar to a bill that died in the last days of the 2020 session.

Sandy Ma, the executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, is also planning to push for changes to mail voting as well as try to convince lawmakers to expand automatic voter registration.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would consider introducing changes to the law to allow for more centers to be open. He is also considering placing requirements into the law that direct the state Office of Elections to give guidance to the counties on the total number and locations of voter centers and drop boxes based on data on voting patterns.

Those proposals are just several tweaks to a system that ran rather smoothly in 2020. Hawaii, which had already been preparing for an all-mail election since last year, was spared many of the headaches other states faced as they scrambled to safely conduct an election during the pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean the system is perfect.

“To say this election didn’t have challenges would be completely wrong,” Nago told the commissioners.

Participants at the commission meeting also raised other concerns.

Ma asked Nago for more data on turnout that could help with the future siting for drop boxes and voter centers. He also faced rounds of questioning from Hawaii Republican Party officials who saw holes in Hawaii’s election security — namely, how the state goes about selecting and providing access to official election observers.

Lilian Koller, a commissioner, called for elections officials to include observers at more points along in the process as ballots travel between the county clerks’ offices and state counting centers.

Marginalized populations of voters, such as the homeless or those requiring language access, also faced issues with a lack of in-person voting options. Other groups, like individuals with disabilities, had an easier time thanks to a new law that allows certain voters to cast electronic ballots.

Voter Service Center worker Brooke Webb disinfects the official ballot collection box outside Honolulu Hale. August 6, 2020
Participants in Tuesday’s commission meeting, particularly Republicans, called for more transparency when it comes to shipping ballots from the counties to state counting centers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Nago also wants ballots to be sent to voters earlier to give both the voter more time to decide and county elections officers more time to process mail ballots coming in.

He said the elections office bill package might also include a proposal to allow drop boxes to open the same day that voters get their ballots. The law currently says that those boxes may only open five days before the election, which some advocates said at the meeting Tuesday was not enough time.

In the August primary election, the City and County of Honolulu irked neighbor island voters when it announced it would open its boxes earlier based on an interpretation of state law from county lawyers.

Allowing voters more time to cast ballots might cut down on the number of those who miss the 7 p.m. deadline on Election Day.

Other changes for 2022 include a program that would allow voters to track their ballots. The state allows voters to see whether their ballot has been accepted, but the new system would allow a voter to track their ballot as it goes from the county clerk’s signature verification process to the state’s counting centers.

That would require new marks to be printed on voters’ return envelopes, but Nago said that should be ready to go in 2022.

This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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