2020 Elections to be Conducted by Mail

2020 Elections to be Conducted by Mail

Vanessa Joy Domingo

I recall when my Dad first brought me along to vote when I was in the first grade. I remember being in awe at the number of cars filling the Lihikai School parking lot. The line of people winding its way out of the cafeteria. The rows of polling cubicles replacing the lunch tables. My Dad expressed the importance of voting—as it was a symbol of freedom to him. Living here in the United States granted him opportunities he would otherwise not have in the Philippines. After casting his vote, the TV in the living room would be on well into the evening. Everyone sitting on the couch, watching the poll—anxiously seeing the numbers climb and keeping fingers crossed.

This year, Hawai‘i will be one of the five states along with Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Utah to conduct elections entirely by mail. Act 136 was signed into law on June 25, 2019 requiring all Hawai‘i elections be conducted uniformly by mail. All registered voters will now be receiving their ballot at the mailing addresses confirmed with their voter registration. Voters can vote at their convenience in their homes and return the ballots with postage paid through the United States Postal Service.

Graphic: Kit Zulueta Furukawa

New County Clerk Kathy Kaohu explains the process. “Voters who have requested to vote by mail in previous elections will have a similar experience in an elections-by-mail model. Act 136 SLH 2019 requires that ballots be delivered to households approximately 18-days prior to the election. The mail ballot packet will continue to include a blank ballot, a secret ballot sleeve, and a pre-addressed, pre-paid return envelope that the voter must sign and return to their County Elections Division.” For Maui County that would be the Office of the County Clerk, 200 S. High Street, 7th Floor, Wailuku, Maui, Tel: (808) 270-7749.

Kaohu reminds voters of the deadline to return the ballots. “All mailed ballots must be received by the County Elections Division by 7 p.m. on election day. The 2020 Primary election day is Saturday, August 8. The 2020 General election day is Tuesday, November 3. A new feature allowed under Act 136 is the ability for voters to correct an issue with their return envelope, such as missing or non-matching signature, within five business days of the election.”

During the transition, three Voter Service Centers will be made available for Maui County: Velma McWayne-Santos Community Center in Wailuku; Mitchell Pauole Center in Kaunakakai, Molokai; and Lāna‘i Police Station Conference Room, Lāna‘i City, Lāna‘i. Per Kaohu, these centers will be open to the public for ten business days prior to the election and through to the close of voting at 7 p.m. on election day. They will be available to provide accessibility to in-person same day voting, same-day voter registration, and receive personal delivery of mail-in ballots from voters that choose to wait three days or less prior to the election day to return their completed ballot. There will also be Ballot Drop Boxes in various locations throughout the island.

County Clerk Kathy Kaohu and her deputy James Krueger.
Photo courtesy Tamara Paltin

The Clerk’s office has been preparing for implanting the initial changes for the election year and invested in new equipment to withstand and process the anticipated volume of ballots returned for processing. Not having to budget for costs of staffing thirty-four polling locations helped to off-set some of the equipment costs.

Although the benefits of the new voting mail-process seem promising in providing the comforts of home to the voter, Kaohu reminisces on the traditional voting process. “One of the few cons in my opinion is the elimination of the polling places. For Maui County that is thirty-four locations. It is a loss of the nostalgic tradition for community to gather for the single purpose of voting at the polling places. For some voters, gathering at the polling place would be the only time they would see their neighbors and was a time to catch up with the neighborhood. It is very important that our voters understand that with this change to voting-by-mail, all polling places will cease to exist. Do not mobilize on election day and drive to the polling place you’ve been going to for many years, it will not be open any longer and is a thing of the past as of 2020.”

Kaohu also noted the lack of polling places would reduce opportunities for youth groups. “Another con with the loss of the polling places is associated with staffing polling places and the loss of the opportunity for youth groups and organized school clubs to volunteer to work the polling places to raise funds for their programs. But the other benefit beyond the fund raising was the exposure for these young adults to the voting process and being witness to the enthusiasm and attitude of the older generation of voters towards voting.”

According to the State’s Office of Elections, the voting turnout in 2018 was 38.6% for the State, with 741,000 registered voters and only 286,180 citizens participating. Maui County had a similar turnout with 36.2% of the 94,194 registered voters participating. According to Kaohu, the Help Americans Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) focuses on improving voting systems—increasing voter participation and improving accessibility of polling places such as access for the disabled and improving voter fraud investigation. Their efforts in bringing in new voter registration included implementing registration applications into driver license applications and SNAP (food stamp applications). This method resulted in a tremendous increase in voter registrations. Kaohu does recognize impediments to increasing voter turnout are similar throughout the country—such as complacency of voters, distrust of the systems in place and being pre-occupied with day-to-day life.

Maui, however, has seen a slight increase in voter turnout over the past elections through absentee voting. “Charter amendments that are high-stakes type of issues like the GMO item a couple elections ago, tend to bring in a lot of new and once-complacent voters back to the table for those election contests,” Kaohu explains. “Increased participation in Maui County seems to be driven by those attributes of issues or particular candidates and races, rather than simply being excited to be exercising their right to vote. There seem to be more Political Action Committees aka PACs that in a way mobilize voters towards certain issues or certain candidates. In the past, more attention went to educating the youth and our young adults by providing in-school programs that introduced the voting process and its purpose at a young age, so it would become something they would be familiar with and could look forward to participating in. These students would then talk about voting with their circle of adults and that conversation would play a role in activating the adults to follow through with voting.”

Will transitioning to a web-based portal or an app change these numbers? Currently—Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota are the four states that allow some voters to return ballots through a web-based portal. West Virginia took the lead in being the one state that currently utilizes a mobile voting app. Will the use of technology be convenient enough to receive an overwhelming response of participation? “Digital transformation is the wave of the future,” Kaohu observed. “And with the recent COVID-19 restrictions to shelter in place, many more folks have changed their habits with one fell swoop by now paying bills online, shopping online, etc. The populace has pretty instantly shifted to this new (or familiar to many) way of on-line life.” Kaohu cautions that perhaps safeguards have not yet been sufficiently developed to prohibit interference from outside sources.

For questions please call the Maui County elections office at (808) 270-7749.

Vanessa Joy Domingo is a graduate of Maui High School and is employed with the County of Maui – Department of Management, IT Services and Coldwell Banker as a Realtor. During her free time, she enjoys cooking and baking and eating. She is also a registered voter.