Hawaii moved to mail-in ballots long before coronavirus threat

By Sydney Frankenberg

On Election Day, none of Hawaii’s nearly 800,000 registered voters will travel to a polling place to cast their ballot.

While many other states have scrambled this year to expand mail-in voting, the Hawaii legislature passed a law to switch its entire state to vote by mail in June 2019 — long before the novel coronavirus.

The state law, formally known as Act 136 SLH 2019, eliminated all in-person polling centers on Election Day 2020. In their place, the law provides for a limited number of voter service centers to accommodate people with special needs, offer same-day registration and be available as issues arise.

State officials acted in response to growing numbers of Hawaiians who opt to vote by mail. In the 2016 general election, 53.5% voted absentee. Since 2014, more Hawaiians have voted absentee than in-person in both the primary and general election. 

While every state offers absentee voting, some require voters to have a valid reason to request a mail ballot. Hawaii had previously been among the 30 states with “no-excuse absentee balloting” and has now joined four other states in holding entirely mail-in elections.

The use of mail-in voting, also known as vote-by-mail or VBM, greatly minimizes the number of poll workers needed on Election Day, particularly important this year as many voters and volunteers share anxieties over potential exposure to covid-19. In previous years Hawaii needed to recruit nearly 4,000 election officials and volunteers and reserve over 250 polling places such as churches and schools, according to Scott Nago, the state’s Chief Election Officer.

This year, Nago said, only 300 to 400 election officials are required to assist with counting ballots and manning the eight voter service centers. 

Fewer in-person volunteers help ensure confidence in the voting process while enabling the state to protect both voters and volunteers, particularly as Hawaii reopens its borders to tourism.  

Earlier this month, Hawaii ended a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all tourists coming to the island. In its place, the state has implemented a pre-travel testing program allowing visitors who test negative for covid-19 within 72 hours of their arrival to opt out of quarantine. Hawaii’s isolation from the rest of the continental U.S. has not shielded it against the pandemic, which has led to the deaths of nearly 200 of its 1.4 million citizens. 

Hawaii is unique in that its elections are coordinated at a statewide rather than county level. This makes sense given the geography: Hawaii consists of eight main islands, seven of which are inhabited and are split between four counties. Each county has its own counting center and clerk’s office. For example, if you are a voter on Maui, your ballot will go to the Maui County clerk’s office to be verified and counted before being sent to the State Election Board in Honolulu (on the island of Oahu).  

Voters began receiving their ballots in the mail on Oct. 9. State law requires that every registered voter receive a ballot at least 18 days prior to the election.

While previously state elections officials could only begin verifying and counting absentee ballots at the close of polls on Election Day, the new law allows counting to begin up to 10 days prior to the election. Nago noted that this is one of the largest changes: having more time to count the ballots. 

“My role hasn’t really changed. We went from one Election Day each to now 10 days in a row,” Nago said.

Counting however, should not be confused with tabulating. Tabulating is the amalgamation of the number of votes for each candidate into official reports. No results can be tabulated until after 7 p.m. on Election Day.

The use of vote-by-mail is distinct from other remote voting solutions (such as online voting), in that it  is considered very secure because of the built-in paper trail the mail-in ballots provide. The paper trail is significant should a recount be deemed necessary. 

At each counting center, Ballot Now voting equipment   mail ballots. Voters will simply darken in their choice at home, and the machine will read in the results in a fashion similar to the way that standardized tests are graded. The ballots, returned in envelopes, will then be opened, flattened out, and read through the machines.

Ballot Now is Hart InterCivic’s, software for printing and scanning paper ballots, and is designed to tabulate absentee ballot results. The software can be used on any machine running Windows 2000 Operating System and is compatible with several different third-party scanners. 

In the November 2020 elections, counties in Washington state, Illinois, and Texas will be using Ballot Now as well as all of Oklahoma and Hawaii. Hart InterCivic technologies are considered reliable and secure, according to Verified Voting, a non-partisan organization focused on the role technology plays in carrying out elections. 

Vote-by-mail, which traces its roots back to the American Civil war, has become a contentious topic in the United States with the approach of the 2020 General Election. Although President Trump has begun to dial back his rhetoric against mail-in voting, some of his supporters cite concerns of voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice ranked the probability for voter fraud exceedingly low, at somewhere between 0.00004% and 0.00009% based on previous elections and it is unlikely to be a factor in the results of the 2020 Presidential Election. 

However, these concerns could have a negative effect on vote-by-mail turnout if the president’s campaign continues to amplify its critiques.

Nago said he is confident in the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity to receive and deliver all ballots on a timely basis. He noted the largest challenge for the State Election Board came in shifting strategy to educate voters. 

Before COVID, the board had intended to travel to areas with the highest in-person voter turnout to ensure all registered voters knew how the state’s elections were changing. The pandemic forced them to shift their PSA to remote means such as newspaper and TV advertisements and to increase their levels of engagement on social media platforms.

“[We] did have to do a lot more voter education,” Nago said,  “Not everyone knows that you are voting by mail.”

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