Hawaii residents may have an easier time registering to vote, get more time to vote during each election cycle and have access to more in-person voting locations under several proposals lawmakers are considering.

In 2019, reforming Hawaii’s election law and setting up an all-mail voting system were priorities for the Legislature

This time around, lawmakers are seeking to prevent the long lines seen outside the few voting centers in the state on Election Day where thousands of people waited for hours to cast their ballots, delaying the release of results for hours after the polls were to close.

Voters wait in long lines to cast their ballots at the Honolulu Hale on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Scores of voters waited in line outside Honolulu Hale to cast their ballots in November. Lawmakers are back in session with proposed changes to Hawaii’s election law to prevent that from happening again. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

One proposal that won approval in a key Senate committee Wednesday tries to address some of those issues from the 2020 election.

Senate Bill 548 — which would allow the counties to establish more voter service centers — is now teed up for a vote by the full Senate.

The lines on Election Day were caused in part because the Legislature killed a proposal last year to give county clerks the flexibility to open more voter centers. The law currently requires that all centers be open during normal government hours and on the same days.

SB 548 requires each county to have at least one center, with the option to open more centers with varying hours. Both the state and Honolulu elections offices support SB 548.

The 2021 Legislature

The bill also requires the counties to open more in-person voting sites on Election Day. Oahu must open three additional sites, with one on the Windward side, while the neighbor islands must open one additional center each.

That tactic appears to work in other states like Colorado, where more voter centers open on Election Day until each one services about 30,000 voters. In the general election, Hawaii was well short of that ratio.

Those new centers could also come with added costs, however. The state Office of Elections estimates that just the equipment alone for each new center could cost the county and state $28,000.

Rex Quidilla, the elections administrator for the City and County of Honolulu, told lawmakers during a hearing last week that staffing at Oahu’s two voting centers cost about $140,000 total.

Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said that the office has enough federal funds left over from previous years to cover the additional costs.

The pandemic has already added costs. The bill for the 2020 election came out to $8.4 million, which is $2 million more than the office expected, according to a report to the Legislature. Costs for postage, facilities and places of deposit were more than expected.

Much of those costs were offset by more than $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

How Many Drop Boxes Is Enough?

The ratio for how many voters will be serviced by in-person voting options is also of interest to Common Cause Hawaii, which for more than a year prior to the Nov. 3 election advocated for more voting sites and drop boxes.

Voters on Oahu’s North Shore shared one drop box in Kahuku or had to drive to Honolulu or Kapolei to cast a ballot in person. Prior to the Aug. 8 primary election, Big Island voters worried that the drop boxes spread across the rural communities may not be sufficient.

The federal government recommends one drop box for every 15,000 to 20,000 voters. 

“We are woefully less than that amount,” Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause, said of Hawaii’s 44 drop boxes that service more than 800,000 registered voters.

This map from the state Office of Elections shows the location of places of deposit and voter centers:

Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, inserted a provision into SB 540 that requires the counties and state elections office to determine the optimal number of drop boxes in the state based on factors such as proximity to public transit, parking, geographically isolated populations, low income populations, voters with disabilities and communities with historically low voter turnout.

A Civil Beat analysis of district-level voting results after the August primary election revealed that voter turnout increased at lower rates in some areas that historically had lower voter turnout than the rest of the state.

Ma doesn’t think Hawaii would reach the fed’s recommended ratio because of added costs associated with additional drop boxes, but she hopes that the analysis by the state and counties could optimize where those boxes should be located.

SB 548 would also require the state Department of Public Safety to provide information on voting rights to people on parole or probation.

Rhoads also inserted a requirement into SB 548 that requires panels of individuals with disabilities to advise the state and counties on changes to the election law.

The move to the mail system gave disabled voters better access to ballots. But those voters and disability advocates also reported issues with getting voting information from state and county elections offices.

AVR, Ranked Choice Voting Gain Traction

The House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committees voted to advance House Bill 740 on Feb. 4. The measure would allow the state to automatically register any U.S. citizen who applies for a drivers license.

Similar measures have been proposed in past sessions with support of voting rights groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. 

The Office of Elections and House Speaker Scott Saiki have put forth similar measures.

Senate Bill 560 would allow special federal elections and elections for vacant county council seats to be conducted by ranked-choice voting. The proposal would require voters to rank the candidates by order of preference, with last-place candidates being eliminated in rounds until a winner is declared.

The Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill on Thursday.

Two other bills that do not have scheduled hearings would also make changes to Hawaii’s elections and campaign finance law.

House Bill 430 and Senate Bill 802 would require elections offices to accept mailed ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Currently, Hawaii has a hard stop to accept mailed ballots at 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The measures would also turn Hawaii post offices into official places of deposit. In other words, voters could drop their ballots off at the offices and the ballots would be considered in the custody of the counties at that point.

The bills would also create a new deadline for candidates to file campaign spending reports, on June 30 of election years, give a break on fines to political action committees that collect $30,000 or less in a year and require disclosures on every page of an advertisement for a candidate.

Both the bills are still alive so long as they clear their first committees by Feb. 18.

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