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Ballots by mail: One less barrier to participation

Officials hope shift to mail-in ballots will bring in more voters to process

COLIN MOORE Mail-in is “no silver bullet”

Election officials and political observers believe Hawaii’s new system of voting by mail will open the door to more voters — particularly the young and centrists — though the long-term effects on turnout and savings may not be clear until future elections.

“I think it’s a positive development, but it’s no silver bullet,” said Colin Moore, associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii. “It’s not going to dramatically increase our voter turnout, but it will help.”

This year, Hawaii is poised to become the fifth state to vote entirely by mail, joining Oregon (1998), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013) and Utah, which just finished adopting the practice across all counties last year, according to the National Vote at Home Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states allow certain counties to conduct elections by mail, and supporters have pointed to success in raising voter turnout and lowering costs.

During the 2014 election in Colorado, for example, counties spent an average of $9.56 per vote, as compared to $15.96 in 2008, and all but three counties spent less per vote in 2014 than in 2008, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study.

Researchers at Yale University and the University of California-San Diego found that voting by mail reform in Washington state — which phased it in by counties — upped aggregate participation by 2 to 4 percentage points. Increased turnout was greater among lower-participating registrants than among frequent voters, “suggesting that all-mail voting reduces turnout disparities between these groups.”

“Historically, Hawaii has had the lowest voter turnouts in the nation,” South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger said. “Our elections are being decided by just a few thousand voters in some districts. We need every last vote we can get.”

Who will turn out?

In Hawaii, the trend is already shifting to early and absentee voting. In the 2018 election, 63 percent of voters in the primary and 56 percent of voters in the general cast their ballot prior to Election Day, according to a state Office of Elections report to the state Legislature in November. Of the voters who cast their ballot early, 89 percent in the primary and 87 percent in the general voted by mail.

The state in recent years has been notorious for low turnout, ranking dead last among states and Washington, D.C., in the 2018, 2016 and 2012 general elections, per fairvote.org.

It’s already expected that people who go to polling places will continue to vote with the new mail-in ballot system, Moore said. However, there could be an uptick in voters who tend to be less politically engaged — and they often lean toward the middle.

“People who tend to be ideologically centrist . . . just overall participate at lower rates,” Moore explained. “The really intense partisans are the people who are more likely to follow the news and turn out to vote. Because vote-by-mail technology is easier and takes less time, you see a slight increase in those voters.”

In addition to centrist voters, Moore also posited that “the people who are more likely to turn out with vote by mail are younger voters” who may find the new system more convenient.

The only real concern with voting by mail is that it’s “less secure” than the physical polling station, Moore said.

“You can’t guarantee that the person receiving the ballot in the mail is actually the people that’s casting that ballot. You can’t prevent sort of family pressure,” Moore said. “But really, the benefits outweigh the cost. Whatever you lose in security, which I think is relatively small, you gain in getting a broader spectrum of people participating.”

Even during a time of heightened fears over foreign meddling in state- and county-level voting systems, Moore said that voting by mail offers security in the sense that all votes will be recorded on paper, not in some computer program that could be hacked or beaten by an algorithm.

“The more concerning thing, of course, with elections is just these misinformation campaigns, but that doesn’t do anything to actually target the mailing system,” Moore said. “In many ways, vote by mail is incredibly secure because unless you’re going to falsify thousands upon thousands of ballots, there’s no way to defeat it. It’s old-fashioned technology.”

And, now that people are getting their ballots nearly three weeks ahead of time, it could change the way candidates map out their election strategies, Moore said.

“You used to sort of want to peak on Election Day, but now the peak is sort of like this sustained two-week period, so the strategy is a little different,” he explained. “The get-out-the-vote operation changes a little bit because you’re not trying to get to the polls. It’s make sure to mail in those ballots.”

What will we save?

One of the top advantages of voting by mail touted by election officials and lawmakers is the savings — though the drop in cost may not be as dramatic the first time around. In a Dec. 31 memo to the state Legislature, the Office of Elections estimated that the 2020 elections would cost $6,420,531, down from the 2018 election expenses of $6,477,477. (The numbers are adjusted from the office’s November report.)

Some of the greatest savings include:

• Election day officials, from $527,510 in 2018 to $95,680 in 2020.

• Supplies and equipment, $192,549 to $44,800.

• Shipping and delivery, $225,657 to $78,000.

• Facilities, $59,640 to $45,300.

• Voting and vote counting system contract, $3,209,000 to $3,009,000.

However, added costs would come in expected areas:

• Mailing services and envelopes, $143,349 to $500,000.

• Postage, $415,662 to $845,617.

• Staffing, $1,414,838 to $1,525,036.

The state and counties share election expenses except for voter registration, a cost that the county shoulders. The Office of Elections said it expects the savings to be greater in 2022 due to a “recently completed procurement for a voting and vote counting system.”

Chief Election Officer Scott Nago said that the new contract would be less than $3 million and would include the mailing services; they would not be an additional cost as they are in 2020.

Under the new system, voters will receive a ballot 18 days before the election. They can mail it back or start dropping it off at voter service centers 10 days prior to the election or at designated places of deposit five days prior. Before, election officials spent most of Election Day counting ballots.

“Now, we can start processing 10 days prior,” Nago said. “It really makes our Election Day a 10-day long process. It’s a pro but a con because it’s a long Election Day.”

However, Nago said that “this 2020 election is really no different from the system we had in 2018 to handle the absentee mail.” All voters will have to sign their return envelopes, and all signatures will be verified using a software program. Each envelope also has a unique barcode that election officials can track to see if the voter’s ballot has been received.

“So if you do mail your ballot in and go to a voting service center, we already know we received your ballot, and you can’t vote again,” Nago said.

That also will be the case if someone makes a mistake on their ballot and requests a new one; if they try to mail both back, only the first one will be accepted. If a voter’s signature isn’t verified, they will be notified and have up to five days after the election to fix the issue.

Nago said that statewide, there were under 4,000 election workers in the last election; this year, that number will drop to fewer than 500. Josiah Nishita, who left his position as county clerk last week to become the county’s deputy managing director, said that Maui County had about 550 volunteers, with about 470 based in polling places, in 2018.

Nishita said the election will be simpler for officials because they no longer have to essentially run “three elections” of early voting, absentee voting by mail and physical polling stations. While there will be many more ballots to mail out, the county will no longer have to coordinate 34 voting facilities.

“Overall, operationally and logistically, it will be easier in 2020 going forward with vote-by-mail than it has in the past with polling place operations,” he said.

Nishita also believes it will reduce one more barrier to voting. Those who in the past couldn’t show up to polling stations can now vote by mail, and those who aren’t quite sold on the new system can still bring their ballots to dropboxes, the County Clerk’s Office or voting service centers designed to receive ballots, accommodate voters with special needs, offer same-day registration and voting, and other election services.

Maui County’s three centers will be the Lanai Police Station, the Mitchell Pauole Community Center in Kaunakakai and the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku. They will be open from the 10th business day before the election through Election Day.

How will candidates adapt?

State Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, the only Maui lawmaker up for reelection in the state Senate this year, said he doesn’t plan to change his approach to campaigning.

“People in my community have been choosing to vote by mail more and more over the time I’ve been in the Legislature,” he said. “So each election has required me to adapt when I need to start and complete my campaign mailings and my outreach to the neighborhoods included in my district.”

Keith-Agaran said that in his district of Central Maui, over half of the people who voted chose to cast ballots by mail — 4,726 in District 8, Wailuku, and 3,443 in District 9, Kahului. In 2018, more people voted by mail in all 11 Central Maui precincts than on Election Day at the polls.

“We have been using absentee mail in our elections for quite a while and the safeguards have been changed and improved over time, including better technology to compare voter signatures on ballot envelopes with the voter registration records,” Keith-Agaran said. “If voter fraud is detected, then those perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Wildberger, who is up for reelection, also has been preparing for the campaign trail with voting by mail in mind.

“Hawaii has always had a fairly high vote-by-mail turnout, so my goal has always been to ‘peak’ on the day ballots get mailed out,” Wildberger said. “Anything beyond that day is extra credit.”

Wildberger believes voting by mail will “help more blue-collar, working-class people who would always insist they couldn’t leave work to vote even though federal election law allows a one-hour break to vote on Election Day.”

She pointed to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures and studies of individual states that have shown promise in boosting turnout. In Utah, for example, which conducted voting by mail in 21 counties and traditional polling places in eight counties during the 2016 general election, “the advent of vote-by-mail increased turnout by 5 to 7 points,” according to a study by Pantheon Analytics.

“Low-propensity voters, including young voters, showed the greatest increase in turnout in vote-by-mail counties relative to their counterparts in non-vote-by-mail counties,” the study found.

Wildberger said that “Hawaii really has a win-win this election cycle, because we still have same-day voter registration and an opportunity to drop off your ballot in person on election (day) — although the polling places will be limited to just a few per island instead of one per precinct like it used to be.

“The concerns about fraud and delays are legitimate, but I think the bigger concern is voter error,” she added. “There is an issue regarding signatures. Voters’ signatures on mail-in ballots need to match the clerk’s file.”

In the 2018 primary, absentee mail-in ballots were part of what helped lead West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker to victory. While challenger Terez Amato won the precincts (1,642 to Baker’s 1,424) and absentee walk-in ballot counts (234 to Baker’s 195), Baker topped the absentee mail-in ballots to make up the deficit (1,775 to Amato’s 1,412).

“Whether it helped me or not, my feeling is that we need to encourage people to vote,” said Baker, who is not up for reelection this year. “If allowing them to mail in their ballot is what is going to get them engaged, then that’s a good thing.”

Baker said she remembers the push to get the voting age lowered from 21 to 18 back in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, when “the cry was, ‘If somebody can send me off to war, I should be able to vote for that person.’ ”

“That was one of the reasons that the amendment was ratified so quickly. And then of course, people didn’t really take advantage of it in the way that people had expected,” Baker said.

She hopes people will take advantage of voting by mail, that they can get their ballots, think it over, meet up with family and friends.

“I just think we need to get the grassroots really engaged, and I’m hoping that this will be an opportunity to do that,” Baker said. “You never know. You just have to try things. If that doesn’t work, try to think up something else.”

Will voters be prepared?

Given people’s “hectic lives” and multiple jobs, watchdog organizations like Common Cause Hawaii certainly hope that voting by mail will “reduce the barrier to voting, because the ballot would come to you,” said Executive Director Sandy Ma.

However, Ma’s more concerned about the execution. The new system may be difficult for first-time voters, people with disabilities, those who don’t speak English as a first language and others who are simply more comfortable going to the polls. It’s why Ma wishes there would be more voter service centers that could assist people leading up to the election.

“With only one voter service center on Maui to service the entire island of Maui, and one on Molokai and one on Lanai, we want people to feel like they can still have some place to go, and we’re concerned that there’s not enough voter service centers,” Ma said.

“Especially since this is the first time we’re doing vote by mail, and while we understand that over 50 percent of our voters vote by mail, there’s still a significant fraction of our voters who do not vote by mail. And this is a huge election coming up.”

She encouraged people to double-check their registered addresses. As of Dec. 30, there were 767,278 registered voters in Hawaii, according to the Office of Elections. However, 79,502 voters, or just over 10 percent, have an outdated or nondeliverable address, and thus would not receive a ballot.

Ma believed residents will get used to voting by mail; it just may take some time. She pointed as an example to bans on plastic bags that forced grocery stores to use paper or shoppers to bring their own. It was a big shift that eventually became a habit.

“Hawaii is not big on change,” Ma said. “We have to slowly work ourselves up to it. And this is a big change.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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