Group seeks more voter service centers

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Three voting rights groups gave the state and counties a Friday deadline to commit to increasing the number of voter service centers or face legal action.

Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, through their attorney, Jeff Portnoy, in a letter Monday to state Attorney General Clare Connors, declare the current number of just eight voter service centers statewide violates the state constitution because it disenfranchises voters in heavily populated urban areas and geographically distant rural areas and doesn’t provide reasonable accommodation to disabled voters.

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It’s too late to add more centers in time for the Aug. 8 primary election, but the group seeks additional voter service centers in each county to provide greater access for the Nov. 3 general election.

“There has been no final determination what the outcome will be,” Portnoy told West Hawaii Today on Tuesday. “More likely than not, a lawsuit is likely to follow if we can’t work something out that’s acceptable to the various parties.”

This is the state’s first all-mail election, with ballots sent by mail to each registered voter. The ballots can be mailed back using the postage-paid envelope provided, dropped off in drop boxes scattered throughout the islands or taken to a voter service center, where people can also register to vote, exchange spoiled ballots for fresh ones and vote in person using equipment that is physically accessible to eligible voters with disabilities and elderly voters.

Currently, there are two voter service centers on the Big Island: Aupuni Center in Hilo and the West Hawaii Civic Center in Kailua-Kona. The voting rights groups recommends one additional voting center in Waimea.

Two additional voter service centers are recommended for Maui, which currently has one; one additional center for Lanai, which currently has one; and three additional locations for Oahu, which currently has two.

“We ferociously lobbied at the county level and at the state level” to increase the number during the recent legislative session, said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “We cannot just have this many for the very first time. We thought there should be more.”

Voters in dense urban areas face increased health risks if they have to stand in line for hours during the coronavirus pandemic, Portnoy said in the letter. In addition, many voters in rural areas face long drives to get to the voter service centers, which might also be crowded.

“These burdens are unjustifiable in light of the fact that more than $3.2 million in CARES Act funding was awarded to Hawaii to help transition to voting by mail and which may be used to fund additional VSCs,” Portnoy said in the letter, referring to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress and signed by the president in March.

Although the Big Island is larger geographically than all the other islands combined, the group is asking for only one additional voter service center, in Waimea. That means voters at the south end of the island, such as in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates and Naalehu, would still have to drive 50-60 miles, a one hour to one and a half hour drive, much of it on two-lane roads, to get to a voter service center.

Portnoy said the group used the location of the state’s district courthouses as a guide to where to site voter service centers. Those are the minimum, he said.

“There’s no real way without extensive science to get a location that everyone will agree with,” Portnoy said. “We wanted to give the state no early chance to argue we were coming up with arbitrary locations.”

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A spokeswoman for the state Office of Elections said it’s the policy of the office not to comment on what could become litigation. Hawaii County Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto referred calls to the county’s corporation counsel, who couldn’t be reached by press time Tuesday. A call to the state Department of the Attorney General was not returned by press time Tuesday.

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

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