East Hawaii News

Election Problems Prompt Discussion of Mail-in Voting

August 13, 2012, 5:04 PM HST
* Updated August 13, 6:47 PM
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Problems that arose with voting on the Big Island Saturday have Gov. Neil Abercrombie questioning the current election system.

Abercrombie said Sunday that he favors changing Hawai`i to a vote-by-mail system or even online voting if it could be done without security problems, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Abercrombie said the main issue is to make it more convenient for people to vote, the Star-Advertiser said.

The governor told the newspaper he also is considering asking state lawmakers to transfer all election authority back to the lieutenant governor, as it was before 1995. That’s when the Legislature created the state’s chief election officer, a position currently held by Scott Nago.

The state Office of Elections generally oversees elections and is supervised by an appointed Elections Commission. But the core election functions – assembling voter lists and the handling of the voting itself – is done by county clerks controlled by county councils.

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Problems with the latter that surfaced in recent weeks on the Big Island included unscheduled closings of elections offices in both Hilo and Kona, firings of some election workers and having key others go out on sick leave.

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The situation prompted state elections officials to complain that they were having trouble even contacting Big Island County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi.

The problems came to a head in Saturday’s primary election when delays in opening some polling places in Kona resulted in Abercrombie issuing a proclamation keeping all Big Island voting stations open an additional 90 minutes.

It is still not clear how many precincts failed to open on time. Initial reports said just a few were involved but that number continued to grow.

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A press release issued by Abercrombie’s office said “multiple” polling places failed to open by 7 a.m. as dictated by state law. The proclamation itself said “more than half” of the polling stations were involved.

Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the state elections office, today told Big Island Now that office hasn’t been in contact with Kawauchi and still isn’t sure how many failed to open on time. Quidilla said state officials are hoping to schedule a meeting with Kawauchi “soon” to discuss the matter.

Kawauchi did not immediately return a call from Big Island Now seeking comment on the issue.

There are currently only two states that have all-mail voting. Oregon established the procedure through voter initiative in 1998 and Washington’s legislature approved a bill for mail voting last year.

According to a study by George Mason University, both rank high for voter turnout among the 50 states.

Increasing numbers of voters requesting to vote by mail-in absentee is what prompted Washington to make the change. According to a study by Washington’s secretary of state, the percentage of votes cast by mail went from 54% in 2000 to 88% in 2006.

The Oregon initiative was approved by 70% of the voters, and research by a University of Oregon political science professor indicated that mail-in voting encourages a greater election turnout.

Turnout on the Big Island in Saturday’s election was 42.6% of registered voters. That was slightly higher than the 41.8% turnout in the primary in 2008, the last time a mayoral election was held. Voter turnout was 39.5% in 2010.

Statewide, the turnout Saturday was 42.3% compared to 36.9% in the 2008 primary and 42.8% in 2010.

For the first time in Big Island history, more people voted by absentee ballot Saturday than went to the polls. There were 23,101 votes cast through absentee ballots in this election compared to 20,246 votes cast at polling stations.

The trend in Hawai`i County has been toward absentee voting. In the 2008 election, about 38% of the votes were absentee. That figure rose to 41% in 2010.

Statewide, the majority of voters —  52% — still go to the polls.

Kauai joined Hawai`i County in being the only counties in the state with a higher percentage of absentee voters. In fact, the Garden Isle had an even higher absentee percentage of 56%, compared to the Big Island’s 53%.

In the City and County of Honolulu, absentee voters cast 48% of all votes, while on Maui they represented 45% of the total turnout.

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