State lawmakers passed two measures to reform Hawaii’s voting system in the wake of two election challenges that overturned the results in a Honolulu City Council race and jeopardized the seating of an Ewa senator.

House Bill 1248 would implement a vote-by-mail system statewide beginning in 2020, and Senate Bill 216 would require a mandatory recount of ballots in races where the difference between the top-two vote getters is 0.25% or 100 votes or less.

Elections reform measures were some of the Legislature’s top priorities heading into this year’s session. The bills will now move to Gov. David Ige’s desk for approval.

A 2016 Hawaii absentee ballot. Voting by mail will be implemented statewide if Gov. David Ige signs HB 1248 into law.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The mail voting bill requires that voters get their ballots 18 days before Election Day. Postage for return envelopes would be prepaid.

Some voters that want to walk in and cast a paper ballot could still do so because HB 1248 would require the county clerks to set up voting centers beginning 10 days before an election.

The counties would also need to open places where people can drop off their mail ballots.

HB 1248 also seeks to remedy several issues brought to light following the November elections challenge over Honolulu City Council District 4 between Tommy Waters and Trevor Ozawa.

If a ballot is mailed, it needs to be in the possession of the county clerk’s office by 6 p.m. Ballots would also need to be in the drop boxes at that time as well; however, voters have until 7 p.m. on election day to be in line at a voting center if they want to cast their ballot.

The time ballots were dropped off to the county clerk’s office figured heavily in the election challenge over Ozawa’s presumed win in the November general election.

In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that 350 mail ballots collected after the close of polls from an airport facility should not have been counted in that race. The state argued in court that the ballots were in the possession of the county clerk once they came to a mailing facility.

The high court says that isn’t so.

The bill makes several changes to the current law, too. It would get rid of voting precincts, eliminate a section of the law that requires employers to give workers time off to cast their ballots and change the way ties would be decided.

In the past, the elections office would decide ties based on how many precincts a candidate won. Now, HB 1248 would have the chief elections officer resolve ties by drawing lots.

The elections office estimates that it could save $750,000 each year if it switched to an all-mail system. Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said in written testimony to lawmakers that the office would require $912,127 as an initial investment by the state to implement the program in Hawaii County, Maui County and on Oahu.

HB 1248 gives $200,000 to the state elections office and another $833,000 to the counties to start up the all-mail voting system.

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