Hawaii's Pro-Voting Reforms Are Strengthening Our Elections - 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.


Hawaii has a long and noble history of promoting voting among its people. During this Women’s History Month, we proudly remember that under the first Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, women sat and voted alongside men in the legislative sessions of the House of Nobles.

Following the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the annexation of Hawaii to the United States, women across the islands led the fight for women’s suffrage in Hawaii.

When Hawaii became a state in 1959, it had a voter turnout rate of 84.4%. In its 1960 general election, the voter turnout rate was 73%. In the 1962 midterm election, the voter turnout rate was 81%.

These are incredibly high voter turnout numbers.

Clearly, Hawaii has a history of valuing voting and civic engagement. Hawaii has built on this history, working to modernize our elections system to promote engagement in our democracy. To this end, Hawaii adopted several beneficial voting and election reforms through the years.

In 1993, a state law was passed for 16-year-olds to preregister to vote and 17-year-olds to register but not yet vote. In 2012, statewide online voter registration was enacted, and it was implemented in 2015.

In 2015, same-day voter registration was enacted (and phased in) to allow people to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot. In 2019, vote-by-mail was adopted just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for safe, secure voting in the 2020 elections.

Our all-mail voting provided people with early voting options, such as returning ballots as soon as they were received at available drop boxes or voter service centers or via the postal service. Voters could also vote early in-person at voter service centers, which were open 10 days prior to primary and general election days.

With voting by mail in place, 2020 saw Hawaii start to reclaim the high voter turnout glory of its yesteryears. In 2020 Hawaii had a voter turnout rate of 69.6% for the general election, which beats the voter turnout rate in the 2016 presidential general election by 11.2% and in the 2018 midterm general election by 16.9%.

With this impressive slate of election reforms, our elected officials are just beginning to protect our democracy by ensuring people’s access to the ballot. While other states and congressional representatives are acting to roll back voting reforms to maintain political power, Hawaii’s elected officials want to expand the franchise.

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)
Voters in Hawaii waited in long lines to cast their ballots on Election Day last year. Making voting easier and more efficient in Hawaii ensures that more voices are heard across the islands. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s elected officials understand that democracy only works when the people — all of the people — are able to participate in government. Hawaii’s elected officials are not afraid of the people’s voice.

Our state House Speaker Scott Saiki and House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Chair Mark Nakashima each introduced automatic voter registration bills in the House in the 2021 legislative session.

Our state Senate President Ronald Kouchi, during the summer of 2020, acted to ensure the success of voting by mail through proper and vigilant legislative oversight.

Our state Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads and Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz jointly introduced a Senate automatic voter registration bill in the 2021 legislative session. Sen. Rhoads has been a long-time supporter of automatic voter registration.

Our state Senate Transportation Chair Chris Lee, also a long-time supporter of automatic voter registration, introduced the only automatic voter registration bill — Senate Bill 159 — that is still alive in the 2021 legislative session.

Automatic voter registration makes the Department of Motor Vehicles more efficient by electronically transmitting voter registration information from the agency to election offices. Eligible U.S. citizens will be registered to vote during their DMV transaction, but they remain free to opt-out.

Hawaii’s elected officials, especially state leadership in the House and Senate, understand that automatic voter registration will eliminate barriers to registering to vote, especially for those without access to the internet or who live far from government centers.

It will help secure our elections, because ballots will be sent to correct, up-to-date addresses. According to the State Office of Elections, as of February 2020, the office had outdated addresses for approximately 14% of its over 769,000 registered voters.

Further, automatic voter registration will save the state and counties monies on unnecessary, duplicated data entry services.

Hawaii has a strong history of adopting pro-voting reforms. Hawaii has acted to expand the franchise for its citizens and ease barriers to the ballot, embracing the will of the people. We value democracy and understand that democracy begins with access to the ballot.

With the adoption of automatic voter registration, Hawaii will be a beacon of light for other states regarding voting reforms during this time of assault on the very foundations of our democracy.

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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)

How about automatic voter roll MAINTENANCE? The proposed bills only address automatic registration; they are silent on the need to automatically remove the voters who have moved or deceased, are (or become) ineligible to vote, or are registered more than once due to name changes and other paperwork issues.

Chiquita · 6 months ago

Agree, breaking down barriers to voting is essential to a functioning democracy. The next step is public financing of elections. This will allow all voices to be heard, and not just those that appeal to moneyed interests. 

TannedTom · 6 months ago

Great article Sandy Ma.Thank you for this history and education on voting in Hawaii.The freedom to vote is powerful.It's everything in keeping a democracy alive.Pity the states that are currently trying to suppress the voters rights-especially Georgia.Proud that Hawaii is leading the way in registering new voters and keeping current voting addresses accurate via the Department of Motor Vehicle regulations.Also, voting by mail this election worked out great for folks during the pandemic. And same day registration is the cherry on top of a great push to exercise your RIGHT to vote!So glad for my vote that helped pick our new President.So very glad!

DemocracyIsFragile · 6 months ago

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