Dozens Say Vote by Mail Cards Never Came

November 19, 2019, 5:45 PM HST (Updated November 19, 2019, 5:45 PM)
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Voter notification card. Image courtesy of the Hawaii State Office of Elections.

Concerns of disenfranchisement have cropped up recently on the Big Island, as residents and state officials alike have pointed to a potential flaw in Hawai‘i’s new vote by mail system that could leave some voters without a ballot come election day.

In July, the Hawai‘i Office of Elections sent out a notification card to all registered voters to announce the state will switch to a voting by mail process exclusively starting with 2020 elections.

However, several registered voters on the Big Island said they never received the card. Or at the very least, they don’t remember the card showing up in their mailboxes.

The state will follow the same process when it mails out signature cards in April of 2020 and ballots for primary and general elections in the months that follow.

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The notification card is only the first step in the vote by mail process, and no ill effects will come to those who didn’t receive it or see it. However, if voters miss out on either their signature card or their ballot mailings, they will be ineligible to exercise their franchise.

One person certain she never received her notification card is Nicole Lowen, a member of the Hawai‘i House of Representatives, who represents Kailua-Kona’s 6th District at the state capitol.

“I’ve been waiting for it,” Lowen said. “I’m positive it hasn’t arrived.”

Nedielyn Bueno, voter services section head with the State Office of Elections, said the only reason people wouldn’t receive their cards is if they aren’t registered to vote, or if they’ve moved and the addresses associated with their voter registrations aren’t current.

Neither is the case with Lowen, however.

“I’m registered to vote,” she said. “I haven’t moved. But I still (didn’t get) my card.”

And she isn’t alone. Lowen posted the question to her Facebook page over the weekend to gauge whether Big Island residents, many of them members of her constituency, had received their cards.

As of Monday afternoon, 65 people had responded to Lowen’s query. Of those 65, there were 38 who said they never received the cards, 19 who said they did and eight who were unsure. Responses weren’t restricted to Kailua-Kona. People from Hilo and other areas of the Big Island also said their cards never came.

On Tuesday, Big Island Now put out a Facebook survey of our own asking the same question. As of around 5 p.m. Tuesday, 50 people had responded. Of those 50, only five said they’d received the notification card, while 45 said they had not — a 90% to 10% split.

It’s important to note that neither poll was conducted scientifically and the cards themselves were mailed out to voters four months ago.

“Some may have gotten it and forgotten,” Lowen said.

The Office of Elections also plans to mail out a second notification card in January of 2020 and will initiate a media campaign early next year to spread the word about the new process and its requirements via television, radio and digital media.

Bueno said inquiries by Big Island Now and Lowen herself were the first the Office of Elections had heard of any problems. Lowen provided the Office with a list of names of people who said they hadn’t received their cards so the Office can look into the matter.

“We did get names, so we’re looking into this right now,” Bueno said.

Dru Kanuha — State senator for Hawai‘i Island’s 3rd District, which includes Kailua-Kona — said no one had contacted him about missing voter notification cards as of Tuesday afternoon.

Bueno said that the Office of Elections has worked and will continue to work closely with the United States Postal Service (USPS) throughout the vote by mail process. But while USPS misdeliveries might account for the occasional card delivery mixup, Lowen said she believes it’s unlikely USPS error would result in so many people saying they never received their cards.

Another contributing factor might be that new occupants of residences are responsible for returning cards sent to voters with outdated addresses. Bueno said there is information on the card explaining that if it was misdelivered, the new occupant needs to indicate that on the card and place it back into the mailbox so it can be returned.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how frequently new occupants actually go to that trouble. Either way, such misdeliveries would only be applicable to registered voters who’ve moved and failed to update their voter registrations. Many of the community members who responded to Lowen’s online inquiry said they were registered and had not moved but still didn’t receive their cards — Lowen, herself, among them.

That begs the question: If the problem isn’t voter registrations or updated addresses, then what is the problem?

Hiccups were expected when the state decided to make the transition to a vote by mail system, and concerns were magnified when legislators decided last session to move forward with the switch without conducting a pilot program.

In 2018, Kanuha said, the Legislature voted to conduct a vote by mail pilot program on Kaua‘i, which would take place in 2020. However, in 2019, Hawai‘i lawmakers went ahead and decided to implement the program across the entire state.

It was an initiative Lowen voted for, but one which she said now makes her a little nervous.

“Data was limited to how they did it in other states,” Lowen said. “(Voting by mail) is supposed to increase turnout. We have a hard time getting poll volunteers. The current system costs a lot of money. And (a lack of) manpower and coordination on election day can cause problems.”

A lot of voters already use permanent absentee ballots. Data from an Office of Elections Report on the voting by mail process indicates that the majority of Hawai‘i voters actually use permanent absentee ballots in both primary and general elections, and they have been for the last five to six years.

The new vote by mail system also eliminates most opportunities for digital interference in the voting process, an offense of which Russia was proven to be guilty during the 2016 elections.

But to maximize the value of voting by mail, kinks in the process need to be worked out. Before they can be worked out, they need to be identified — and time to do all that is running short, as primary elections are scheduled for Aug. 8, 2020.

“There was no real pilot,” Lowen said. “This was rushed.”

Those who wish to check their voter registration status and information can do so by clicking here.

Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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