Hawaii lawmakers approve statewide mail-in voting
Leading lawmakers have finally agreed on a plan to switch to statewide mail-in balloting starting in the 2020 election, a shift that is expected to save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle and possibly boost voter turnout slightly.
Assuming the House and Senate approve House Bill 1248 and Gov. David Ige signs the measure, Hawaii will join three other states that use mail-in balloting for all elections. Colorado, Washington and Oregon already have all-mail voting.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states including Hawaii now allow mail-in voting for at least some elections. In Honolulu the election rematch between Honolulu City Council candidates Tommy Waters and Trevor Ozawa earlier this month was by mail-in ballot.
State Chief Election Officer Scott Nago supports the changeover, and said in written testimony this year that “we believe elections by mail is convenient and accessible for voters, and it will streamline the administration of elections.”
Lawmakers have considered bills to switch Hawaii to mail-in balloting every year since 2015, and last year agreed to test out voting by mail on Kauai in the 2020 elections. On Tuesday a House-Senate conference committee agreed on a new draft of SB 1248 that would establish statewide mail-in voting.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads noted that more than half of all voters already cast their ballots by mail each election. The state has essentially been running three voter systems each election by allowing people to mail in their ballots, vote at walk-in absentee voting locations or go to traditional polling places on Election Day, he said.
“In the long run we expect to save just about $750,000 a year by just doing it primarily by mail,” Rhoads said.
Nago said most of that savings will come from reduced staff costs because fewer people will be needed to work at polling stations on the day of an election.
The effect on voter turnout on the mainland has been mixed, but Rhoads said it is possible there will be some increase in turnout here because the ballots will be distributed to every registered voter. No one will have to leave work or go out of their way to vote, he said.
Voters would be able to mail back their ballots, place them in special drop boxes or go to voter service centers for help. The voter service centers would be open for 10 business days before an election and on the day of an election to accept ballots, assist voters with special needs, offer same-day registration and voting, and provide other election services, according to the bill.
The new draft of the measure includes more than $1 million for the counties and state elections office to cover startup costs for the new system, including buying high-speed scanners and sorters.
All mail-in voting was supported by Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii and the county clerks for Hawaii and Maui counties.
The measure was opposed by Kaneohe resident Ken Conklin, who argued in written testimony that “voting by mail, early voting, or absentee voting should be the exception — not the normal, routine, expected procedure.”
Voting has become easier in recent years, but voter turnout has not noticeably improved, Conklin wrote. “Personally, I don’t mind if voter turnout is low, because that magnifies the effectiveness of my own vote. Ignorant or apathetic people are welcome to abstain.”
Conklin also warned that mail-in voting makes it easier to pay people or intimidate them into voting in a certain way.
But Rhoads said half the voters are already voting by mail. “I’m not aware that there’s been any problems in that half that’s been doing it already,” he added.
HB 1248 now goes to the House and Senate for final floor votes and then to Ige for further consideration. Ige has the options of signing or vetoing the bill, but last year he signed the bill that authorized mail-in voting on Kauai in 2020.