People with disabilities in Hawaii could soon have a greater say in changes to Hawaii’s mail voting system two years after some disabled voters and disability advocates reported issues with accessing ballots and information from elections officials.

Hawaii lawmakers created the statewide Voters with Special Needs Advisory Committee last year to ensure better voting access for people with disabilities. The new law also created similar advisory panels in each county.

The committees were tucked into a bill that sought to expand voting options and help resolve the hours-long wait times and long lines many voters waded through at the state’s eight in-person voting sites during the November general election.

James Gashel, who is a member of the statewide advisory committee, wants to see a broader outreach campaign targeting people with disabilities to inform them of their voting options. He hopes this new committee can elevate the disabled community’s concerns to elections officials.

“We’re an official part of the state now, so we shouldn’t be ignored,” Gashel said. “I have every reason to believe they’ll listen to us.”

James Gashel, a retired vice president for the National Federation of the Blind, hopes a new advisory committee he sits on can help elevate the voices of disabled voters in the state. Screenshot/Hawaii Senate/2022

The five-member statewide panel includes a mix of individuals with either a physical, intellectual or developmental disability.

In addition to Gashel, a retired vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, the committee includes Patricia Morrisey, the former director of the University of Hawaii Manoa Center on Disability Studies. She also helped to draft federal disabilities rights legislation, according to her resume.

The committee also includes Sheryl Nelson, director of the statewide Independent Living Counsel, Ramoda Anand, who has cerebral palsy, and Kathryn Keim, who is also blind and runs a local food contract service company.

Daintry Bartoldus, director of the state Council on Developmental Disabilities, said she is impressed with the panel’s composition and happy that the governor’s office appointed people representing a broad spectrum of those with disabilities.

The panel should “ensure we are looking at every type of disability, to make sure we are addressing their needs,” Bartoldus said.

Suggesting Changes

Hawaii’s all mail system already takes steps to make it easier for disabled voters to cast their ballots from home. State election laws allow those voters to request electronic ballots. And last year, lawmakers dropped a rule that required those voters receiving an electronic ballot to also print out and sign an affidavit.

“A lot of blind people don’t have printers,” Gashel said. “I mean, you’re not much in need of one.”

Donald Sakamoto, who is also blind, still hangs on to his printer. Sakamoto was appointed to Honolulu’s advisory committee earlier this year.

He already voted by mail before the practice became standard in 2020 and prefers to use a physical ballot. Those ballots would still be necessary if a disabled voter lacks access to assistive technology at home. Or if, as Sakamoto puts it, “you not too computer akamai.”

“I’m not too computer akamai, so it’s going to be hard,” he said.

Sakamoto said he wants to focus on accessibility for voters at the county level.

While electronic ballots are an option for voters with disabilities, those that choose to print them or use mailed ballots must sign the ballot envelope – a difficult task if you can’t see where the signature line is.

Honolulu Hale Voter Service Center as a voter casts his ballot electronically. August 6, 2020
Members of the new advisory groups want to ensure voting access for people with disabilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Sakamoto suggested relocating a small hole punched in each envelope to be located next to the signature line.

Each of the county mayors are required by law to appoint five-member committees similar to the state’s advisory panel.

Members of the Honolulu advisory committee were sworn in Thursday, Sakamoto said. Meanwhile, Kauai County already established its panel.

Hawaii County plans to fill its committee by Friday, according to county spokesman Cyrus Johansen. A spokesman for Mayor Mike Victorino did not respond to a message inquiring about the status of the Maui county advisory committee.

The county and statewide advisory committees have yet to meet this year. They’ll be required to meet at least once every year to come up with suggestions for the elections offices to implement.

Gashel said he’s not sure if any proposed suggestions could be taken up in time to change this election season.

Nedielyn Bueno, who coordinates voter services for the Office of Elections, said it’s possible the committee’s recommendations could be implemented ahead of the November election.

The state elections office is providing administrative support and assistance for the statewide panel to host its meetings, Bueno said. Other than that, the recommendations and meeting schedule will be left up to the committee.

“Whatever recommendations they have for the office of elections or for the state, we’ll definitely be working with them,” Bueno said.

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