Thousands of voters who wanted to cast their votes in-person on Election Day in November 2020 found themselves waiting for hours in long lines outside Honolulu Hale and Kapolei Hale.
That was the year Hawaii switched to all-mail voting and opened just eight in-person voting locations across the islands. The long wait times spurred calls for additional voter service centers ahead of the 2022 elections. The Legislature cleared the way for that last year.
Now, Oahu will get two more voter centers in Wahiawa and Kaneohe while Maui will get another center in Hana.
But the Big Island is still sticking with its voter centers in Kona and Hilo. There won’t be any additional centers on Kauai either.
The primary election Aug. 13 isn’t likely to produce long lines like those seen in November 2020 because fewer Hawaii voters turn out for primary elections compared to general elections.
While county elections officials say the number of centers is adequate given the resources on each island, good-government advocates are calling for as many as 15 additional centers across the state in order to increase voter access and participation.
Although Hawaii’s voter turnout experienced an uptick in 2020, due largely in part to the jump in all-mail voting, the Aloha State still lags behind most of the nation in election participation.
“It’s still comparatively not so rosy. And so we need to make sure 2020 was not an aberration for us. Make sure everyone who is eligible to vote can vote,” Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said.
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Common Cause is asking for additional voter centers on Oahu in Waianae, Nanakuli, Ewa Beach, Pearl City, Laie and Waimanalo; on Maui in Lahaina, Kihei and Makawao; on Kauai in Poipu and Anahola; and on Hawaii island in Pahoa, Waimea, Volcano and Honokaa.
Ma said she’s recommending those locations based on distance to the closest voting center and the likelihood that residents in those areas vote. She said that districts with traditionally low turnout could benefit from having a voter center in the community.
Common Cause also based its recommendations on the density of Native Hawaiian populations in a given area. Hawaiians have grown as a political force, but the communities in which they live often see low voter turnout, particularly areas on Oahu’s West Side. Waianae had the lowest voter turnout overall in the 2020 general election.
Districts that had the highest rates of in-person voting also tended to be closer to voter service centers. The top two House districts that voted in-person were in Kona and Kapolei, according to election data. Both towns host voter service centers.
In-person voting was also popular among some voters in Ewa Beach and Kunia on Oahu; in South Maui and Wailuku on Maui; and in Lihue and around towns on Kauai’s northeast shore.
In-person votes accounted for fewer than a 10th of all votes cast in each of those districts. In the 2020 Primary Election, about 1% of all ballots came from in-person voting sites. That figure rose to 3.9% in the General Election.
And the crowds that overwhelmed Oahu’s two voting sites and caused smaller lines on other islands only showed up on Election Day, when over 8,000 voters statewide came to cast their ballots. That’s about a third of the 24,000 voters who voted in person during the general election period.
Many waiting in line at Kapolei Hale and Honolulu Hale were either first time voters who needed to register or people who needed to update their registrations. This year, Honolulu election workers have plans to register people while they are in line to speed up the voting process at the voter centers, according to Honolulu elections administrator Rex Quidilla.
The two additional voter centers on Oahu in Wahiawa and Kaneohe were selected based on geography.
“The decision was made by looking at the map and determining that something is needed in Central Oahu, closer to the North Shore as well as on the Windward side of the island,” Honolulu elections administrator Rex Quidilla said.
He called the Election Day lines a phenomenon and said that the centers weren’t as crowded in the days leading up to the election. Voting centers require better trained staff and more equipment than usual polling sites.
Many waiting in line at Kapolei and Honolulu Hale were either first time voters who needed to register or update their registrations. This year, Honolulu election workers have plans to register people while they are in line to speed up the voting process at the voter centers, according to Quidilla.
Quidilla understands those calls for more centers, but said the county has limited resources.
“What we are trying to do is to be able to establish enough service centers we can actually support and provide the very best service that we can,” he said.
Having enough staff is also an issue on the Big Island. It’s the primary reason why the county is sticking to just two centers.
Hawaii County Clerk John Henricks said his office has about six full-time staff members available to run the county’s two centers.
“It’s really about our resources and stretching ourselves too thin,” Henricks said. “We’ll never have enough of those workers to open up enough voter centers in the quantities people might prefer or expect.”
Voting by mail was most popular on the Big Island, where 91% of votes cast came through the postal system, 7% through county drop boxes, and the remainder through voter centers.
In 2020, Big Island polls closed just over an hour after the scheduled closing time of 7 p.m. Hendricks said the county is trying to educate new voters on how they can register earlier to avoid long lines in the future.
He didn’t rule out the possibility of opening more in the future, but said that voter centers are really only for those who need to vote in-person, such as those with disabilities, who have spoiled ballots, or are registering for the first time.
“I wouldn’t look at trying to have them proliferate,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the best use of our resources.”
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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 email@example.com.