With a week to go before general election voting comes to an end in Hawaii, state and county elections officials report about 195,000 ballots have been returned.

That’s out of more than 731,000 ballots distributed so far, a return rate of about 27%. 

And on Tuesday, the State Capitol was abuzz with counting.

Volunteers could be found in a room on the third floor of the building, separating Oahu ballots from their envelopes. 

Elections volunteers separate ballots from envelopes
Elections volunteers at the Hawaii State Capitol separate ballots from their secrecy envelopes, placing the ballots into labeled cardboard boxes on the left. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

Election officials bounced between there and the Senate chamber, where an army of scanner machines processed the ballots, their results being uploaded to thumb drives not to be tabulated until the polls close on Election Day.

Rene Morgan, a volunteer observer from Kailua, was one of those working at the Capitol. She says likes to sign up for double shifts. 

“Elections can’t happen without observers,” she said.

She’s right — many of the steps require observers to sign off, including locking up the ballot-containing cages at the end of each day. The observers sign their names in green, while officials sign their names in red; blue and black pens are avoided since voters mark their ballots with those colors. 

Morgan has been an observer since 2020, and said that she’s enjoyed learning about the process of counting ballots.

If people have concerns about anything “goofy” going on, they can come on in and observe for themselves, she said.

Hawaii implemented a vote-by-mail system in the 2020 elections and it’s still not clear whether voting by mail, although touted as making it easier to vote, has done much to increase turnout. In 2020, at this time in the general election about 60% of ballots had been returned — a record-setting turnout — but that was also during a fiercely fought presidential election.

Turnout for the Aug. 13 primary was about 39%.

Voter registration has been climbing since 2018, with about 30,000 new registered voters each year, owing in part to a 2021 law that allows people to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license. People can also register on Election Day at one of the Voter Service Centers around the state, which also allow in-person voting. 

A cage of labeled cardboard boxes containing ballots sits in the State Senate Chamber.
A cage of labeled cardboard boxes containing ballots sits in the state Senate chamber. Each box contains ballots from a specified range of House districts, which makes things easier if a recount needs to occur. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago encouraged voters to submit their ballots early to avoid long lines at the voting centers that are open on Election Day. 

Officials recommend mailing in ballots at least five days early to ensure they arrive by Election Day, though also note that voters can place their ballots in dropboxes any time up to when the polls close at 7 p.m. that day. A full list of dropbox and voter service center locations is located on the elections website by county

This election will be the first to utilize a remote transmission system, where different counting sites throughout the state can send their results over a secured point-to-point system to the state’s counting center at the Capitol.

“We’ve gone from a polling place model to a vote-by-mail model, so now we’re looking for ways to streamline and make it more efficient,” said Nedielyn Bueno, who coordinates voter services for the Office of Elections. 

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