League of Women Voters seeks smooth transition to mailed ballots

  • In this 2016 file photo, voters cast their ballots at the Palisades Community Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Primary election calendar (Hawaii Office of Elections)

  • Comparison of in-person to mail-in voting over the years. (Hawaii Office of Election)

Although Hawaii Island, along with the rest of the state, has been voluntarily transitioning from walk-in voting to mail-in ballots over the past 20 years, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters is concerned some voters may be left behind in an election offering only two locations for on-site voting.

The state changed its election procedures to mailed ballots this year, after a bill passed the Legislature last year requiring the change.

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What previously was primary election day, this year on Aug. 8, will be the deadline for ballots to be returned. Ballots will be mailed to be received by voters July 21. All voters are supposed to receive ballots in the mail, not just those who requested the absentee ballot option in the past.

Rosemarie Muller, president of the League of Women Voters Hawaii County, said the group supports mailed ballots but wants to ensure the transition will be successful. She’s especially concerned that offering only Hilo and Kona walk-in sites will disenfranchise voters who may not understand the ramifications of the new plan.

“We fear that this will not be sufficient to serve the needs of the voters of such a large county,” Muller said.

Muller said quite a few people at recent voter registration drives weren’t aware of the changes. Having more election sites is a good practice during the transition, she said.

“I think people will want to vote by mail. There’s a large percentage of voters who use the absentee ballots,” Muller said. “But there are still people who still like to vote in person.”

More than half of the Hawaii County voters who voted took advantage of mailed ballots in 2018 compared to visiting a polling place, reflecting a statewide trend.

But the current mail-only plan is complicated by the fact that many people haven’t kept their addresses up to date with the elections office.

Approximately 11% of the state’s 767,278 registered voters have outdated or non-deliverable mailing addresses, Chief Election Office Scott Nago said in a Dec. 31 memo to state legislative leaders.

Nedielyn Bueno, spokeswoman for the state Office of Elections, said the counties are implementing the plan in the best way they see fit.

“Although we have different responsibilities, we all share a common goal of a secure, accessible and convenient election,” Bueno said. “We are confident that the county has taken great consideration in establishing voter service centers and how best to serve Hawaii’s voters.”

The new system includes two sites that will have voting equipment. Dubbed “voter service centers,” they’ll be open from July 27 to Aug. 8. The machines are intended for disabled voters, but any voter will be able to use them, under the sate plan.

In addition, “places of deposit,” where people can drop off completed ballots, will be open from Aug. 3 to Aug. 8.

“We will no longer have polling places on election day. In the past elections, the state was responsible for polling places,” Hawaii County Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto said. “The bill that was passed states voter service centers shall be established by the (county) clerks.”

There will be six places of deposit: North Kona, South Kona, Naalehu, Pahoa, Hilo and Waimea, Nakamoto said. Those locations won’t have voting machines.

Switching to mail-in voting is expected to save the state only $56,946 in a $6.4 million budget this year compared to the more traditional 2018 election. Nago had forecast a savings of $750,000 per election cycle.

But more savings will be seen in 2022, when the cost of mailing services and envelopes will be defrayed, Nago said in the memo.

Most supporters of mailed ballots say it will increase Hawaii’s traditionally low voter turnout, which is consistently the lowest in the nation.

The state plans to kick off an educational campaign in the months before the ballots go out.

It can’t happen soon enough for Muller.

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“I think there’s a lot of voter education still that has to be put out by the Office of Elections,” Muller said. “We do what we can. It’s all about education.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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