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Groups call for better access for rural and displaced voters

Separate letters for more voter service centers

LANCE COLLINS, More voter centers needed

Nonprofit and civil rights groups are calling for more voter service centers in Maui County to help registered voters who live in remote areas or are homeless and lack traditional mail services.

Attorneys for these groups have said in separate letters to local election officials over the past week that three voter service centers — one each on Maui, Molokai and Lanai — will not be sufficient to serve more vulnerable voters during the state’s first mail-in only election.

“What we were suggesting was allowing individuals to, if they can’t get their mail, to basically give them a free return fare on the bus to allow them to go to a voting service center,” explained Lance Collins, who represents the nonprofit Share Your Mana, about a dozen unsheltered houseless registered voters and five residents who live in remote areas like Kahakuloa and Kipahulu.

Collins wrote in a letter to the Maui County Clerk’s Office on July 24 that many unsheltered registered voters don’t have a permanent address to get their mail and have to rely on “general delivery,” which allows them to pick up their mail at a U.S. Postal Service office for a 30-day period.

However, because the Kahului postmaster has restricted the use of general delivery service to 30 days a year and limits the number of families who may share one address to five, voters without a home or regular mailbox are faced with scheduling their one-month mail service for either the primary or general election, but not both, Collins wrote.

KATHY KAOHU, Law lacks flexibility

The county does have voter service centers, which provide the option to vote in person, register to vote or turn in completed ballots.

The three centers in Maui County are located at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku, the Mitchell Pauole Center in Kaunakakai and the Lanai Police Station in Lanai City.

However, Collins pointed out that the community center in Wailuku is a 4-mile walk from Kanaha Beach Park, a 10-mile walk from north Kihei, a 21-mile walk from the Lahaina Aquatic Center, a 12-mile walk from Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani and a 53-mile walk from the Hana Community Center.

“By contrast, when there were polling precincts in previous elections, these distances were reduced to a few miles to the nearest polling precinct, at the most,” Collins wrote. “For those who are unsheltered, the risk of theft or damage to one’s personal belongs increases with the amount of time an individual is called away.”

Collins asked for two main solutions — opening voting service centers at the Hana Community Center District Complex and the Lahaina Civic Center, and waiving return trip fare for registered voters from Haiku, Upcountry, South Maui and Central Maui who use the Maui Bus to travel to the voting service center in Wailuku. He suggested that agencies could offer coupons to voters without permanent addresses and that a shuttle could pick them up at certain times and locations on Election Day.

“Mail-in voting is a great system,” said Collins, who had plans to meet with the Clerk’s Office on Friday. “It really expands the opportunity for people to vote. It basically makes it easy for a lot of people. It’s just that there’s some of these details around the edges that haven’t really been worked out, or there hasn’t been enough time for election officials to really think out all of these issues.”

Meanwhile, three other groups also are calling for each of the counties to establish more voter service centers during the Nov. 3 general election.

Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights are asking all four counties to open more voter service centers in light of rising unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As residents are either forced or decide to move from their homes, it will be harder for them to receive ballots mailed to their addresses on file,” attorney Jeffrey Portnoy of Cades Schutte said in a letter to state and county election officials on Monday. “This is especially true of younger voters with less permanent residences, such as college students who have been forced to leave their on-campus housing. Many people experiencing homelessness have no access to personal mail services and can only cast their ballot through in-person voting at a VSC.”

Portnoy added that voters who need to use the service centers “will be forced to crowd into one or two VSCs per island, waiting in line for hours, risking their health and the health of their families.”

Many rural area voters also don’t have home mailboxes and may have to travel hours to reach the nearest service center, Portnoy added.

In Maui County, the groups wanted to see three additional service centers in Lahaina, Hana and Lanai City at a site other than the police station.

In addition to the service centers, voters can also return their ballots by mail, at places of deposit located at several community centers and fire stations or to the County Clerk’s Office.

Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu said Thursday that unfortunately, the state law on mail-in voting does not offer much flexibility. In Hana, there were some residents who were willing to volunteer and staff a voter service center, but because they could not work the specific hours mandated by the state, the county was unable to station one there.

Kaohu said there is a process for homeless individuals to register to vote. Instead of indicating a specific address on their application, they can submit descriptions such as “the second entranceway to Kanaha Beach Park,” near the bathroom or under a certain tree, “just different geographic features that help to identify that place that the individual calls home,” Kaohu said.

However, she acknowledged the barriers facing voters who don’t have a permanent home or traditional mailbox. In the past, some have sent their mail to nonprofits that serve the homeless or even to their case managers, but some agencies no longer do that, Kaohu said.

Another option is the general delivery service at the post office, though Kaohu agreed that the limited time period and the need for photo identification — which takes time and money to get — are also barriers.

“Right now, I don’t have a solution for that, and I haven’t had an opportunity to speak with the other counties or the state to see how they’re trying to bridge that gap in their communities,” she said.

“I would love for the Legislature to break down some of these things and perhaps come up with some solutions or use the political will to have the U.S. Postal Service maybe go back to what it was, a longer period of time to be able to use general delivery, perhaps just maybe during the election years.”

However, Kaohu said she “would definitely be interested in looking at those options” that Collins brought up. Transportation is also a barrier, and if the county couldn’t use its own bus service, perhaps it could coordinate with other companies to shuttle registered voters to the service centers.

Kaohu also said she could see a possibility of opening a service center in Lahaina for the general election. If the county could schedule appointments for the service centers, it could control the flow better and “perhaps we wouldn’t need as many positions,” she said.

With the Aug. 8 primary just around the corner, Kaohu said 19,490 ballot envelopes had been returned as of Wednesday.

Some of those envelopes came without a signature or are requests for new ballots. The county is mailing back ballot packets without signatures to allow voters a chance to sign them, as ballots without signatures will not count.

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

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