Early-voting trends weigh on future of all-mail ballots

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Saturday’s primary election dodged the label of lowest turnout ever in Hawaii.

Instead, it’s third lowest.

But one bright spot is an ever-growing number of people doing their civic duty by casting a ballot well before Election Day. 

Always Investigating looks into what needs to change for the system to catch up with voter preference.

The resources that go into holding election-day voting are very high compared to the falling number of people who choose to go to the polls on that day. Whether we’ve hit enough of a tipping point to shift to statewide all-mail voting largely rides on how an experiment two years from now pans out.

After primary voter turnout took a dive a couple of years ago into the low 30s as a percentage of registered voters (34.8% in 2016), hopes were high over the weekend for a reversal of the slide. This past Saturday, turnout squeaked back up a bit (38.6% on Aug. 11, pending adjustment for same-day registration). But that still came in third-worst since another primary election low-point back in 2008 (36.9%).

Voting advocates see some main reasons for the disconnect.

“There are better ways,” said Corie Tanida, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “We do live in the 21st century, and we do expect modernization and convenience, and I think that shows with turnout.”

It certainly shows in the mail and early vote turnout. Nearly 180,000 people voted ahead of time — that’s 62 percent of votes cast.

Compare that to just over 100,000 people voting on election day. Early voters have been the majority since 2014.

Related Link: Voter turnout statistics

“We do know that since previous elections absentee voting has been trending upward so you will see more absentee ballots than precinct ballots,” said Chief Election Officer Scott Nago.

An all-mail pilot project will kick off on Kauai for the 2020 election. Voting advocates say all eyes will be on that to prove it’s worth a statewide shift.

“Most people are voting absentee via mail,” Tanida said, “so we don’t necessarily need all these precinct locations if we were to consolidate and have a statewide vote by mail program.”

Those 235 polling places and central processing require nearly 4,400 volunteers, and it eats up about a quarter of the $3.2 million state budget for each election cycle. Going all-mail statewide could save $750,000 per two-year cycle.

Related Link: All-mail voting legislation for 2020 and beyond

After Kauai tries all-mail voting in 2020 — which will include one same-day polling place option — a report is due to the legislature by January 2021 on what it would take to implement all-mail votes statewide.

But that still leaves several more election cycles needing to be teed up the old-fashioned way.

Always Investigating asked, is there any middle ground in the meantime, especially in the bigger locations like Oahu — somewhere in between going all-mail, which could take awhile for Honolulu, and fanning out across 235 polling places.

“I think the vote-by-mail system we are advocating right now is that compromise,” Tanida said. “Again, we’re not taking away the option of voting in person.”

The state Office of Elections told Always Investigating there will still be 235 polling places for November’s general election but that they will be looking at revising the polling place count, saying in a statement: “In 2020, we will look into alternatives that will address polling places especially since we continue to see an upward trend with absentee voting.”

The 2021 report due to the legislature about the Kauai experiment will also need to show whether participation increased after all registered voters received a mail ballot.

Of people opting-in for absentee voting today, they’re turning the ballots in at a response rate of 60 to 70 percent depending on the county.

Part of that could be because they are requesting an absentee ballot. We asked, when people are simply mailed a ballot to start with, will we still see that high level of engagement hold?

“I certainly hope so,” Tanida said. “In states that do have statewide all mail voting, states like Oregon, Colorado and Washington, they have much higher and much more consistent voter turnout rates than we do. They’re in the 60s and 70s (percent turnout of registered voters).”

Even though the majority in Hawaii are voting early, there are still a lot of folks who want that polling-place, voting-booth experience. That won’t be done away with entirely in the current all-mail model.

On Kauai in 2020, there will still be early walk-in available as there is now, and on Election Day, one voter service center will be open.

Voting advocates say they’ll push for more than one voting center to be open in future incarnations of universal vote-by-mail, especially now that we have just launched election-day registration. Each county is in various stages of counting up this weekend’s same-day registrations.

Kauai told Always Investigating it registered 13 new voters on Saturday; Maui took in 168; Big Island took in 319. Honolulu County says it won’t know for up to two weeks, as the main office still has to receive and process the forms for a tally.

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