Chair Keith-Agaran, Vice Chair Shimabukuro, and Committee Members:
The League of Women Voters of Hawai`i strongly supports establishment of an all ballot by mail system in Hawai`i. However, we have several concerns about SB 219 which would require the office of elections to implement elections by mail beginning with the primary election in an as yet unspecified year. Thereafter the bill would require all federal, state, and county primary, special primary, general, special general, and special elections to be conducted by mail. It establishes a minimum number of voter service centers per county and island in-lieu of traditional polling places and requires voter service centers to provide services such as voter registration.
We urge the establishment of vote-by-mail elections in the State of Hawai`i. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures there are at least twenty-two states that allow certain elections to be conducted by mail and the states of Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct mail-in voting for all elections. Voting by mail has become increasingly popular in Hawai`i. For statewide primary elections mail-in ballots accounted for 42.4% of total ballots cast in 2010, 45.9% of primary ballots in 2012 and 51.2% of primary ballots in 2014. For Hawai`i General Elections, mail-in absentee ballots accounted for 42.4% in 2010, 45.9% of the vote on 2012 and 51.2% of the vote in 2014. 1
Vote-by-mail systems have several advantages over the current polling place elections currently conducted in the State. There is a potential for significant cost savings in a vote-by-mail system. It will no longer be necessary to recruit, train and pay the hundreds of poll workers now needed in the state's 247 polling places. Hawai`i currently has the lowest percentage turnout of voters of any state. In the 2016 general election only 52.3% of registered voters cast ballots in the election which represents only 34.9% percent of eligible citizens casting ballots. Vote-by-mail systems have increased the voter turnout by making ballots available to each registered voter. Hawai`i conducted the special congressional election in District 1 in 2010. The turnout in that special election was 54%
Section 11-D of the bill requires a minimum number of voter service centers to be opened in each county to allow a voter to deposit or cast a ballot, update his or her address and to have his or her name changed on the register of voters if he or she has legally changed names. Section 15-7 also requires that these centers allow voters to register and vote if they are not currently registered. These voter services centers are required to be open beginning ten days before an election and close on the day prior to the election. This bill does not specify where a voter can go on Election Day to register and vote. This bill should be amended to specify that the voter service centers, or other locations, are available for voter registration and voting on the day of the election.
The League of Women Voters supports the establishment of voter service centers to assist voters who wish to vote in person, who have lost or damaged their ballot or need to complete a late registration and vote. However, we believe that the formula used in this bill puts a burden on county election officials by requiring minimum numbers of voter service centers in each county. Using the formula in this bill and the voter registration totals from the 2014 general election the following numbers of voter service centers would be required: twenty-five in the City and County of Honolulu , six in the County of Hawai`i, six in the County of Maui and three in the County of Kaua`i . The bill would also require at least one voter service center on each inhabited island in the state. This would require the County of Kaua`i to set up and staff a voter service center for at least ten days on the island of Ni`ihau. We believe this is excessive. The bill should be amended to allow the chief elections officer and the county clerk of each county to determine the number of service centers needed to serve the voters.
The bill states that public notice of the mailing of ballots shall be made pursuant to HRS 1-28.5 which requires a legal notice in a daily or weekly publication. To ensure the widest distribution of this information we suggest that the bill be amended to also require that chief elections officer and/or county clerk issue a general news release and post the information on the state office of elections and county clerk websites.
We have concerns about the section 11-C of the bill which states, "Counting of mail-in ballots. (a) The method of preparing ballots for counting may begin no sooner than the seventh day before the election." This language needs to be changed. The shift to elections by mail will require new policies and procedures to ensure that the ballots are secure and that they are processed and counted in a timely manner. In the general election of 2014 there were a total of 189,107 absentee ballots processed statewide. Assuming that a mail ballot election would result in a turnout of 54% (as in the 2010 special congressional election) there would be over 381,000 mail ballots to process. It would be advisable to allow election officials to begin the process of signature verification as soon as the ballots are received from the voter as is presently the case.
Currently in Hawai`i mail ballot envelopes are not opened until election morning which results in voted ballots not arriving at the counting stations until late morning. In the 2014 primary elections counting of absentee ballot was not completed until after midnight. To ensure that ballots are counted in a timely manner it is advisable that the legislature allow the chief elections office to establish procedures which allow ballot envelopes to be opened and scanned prior to Election Day. Several states allow ballots envelopes to be opened and ballots to be scanned prior to Election Day so long as results are not released prior to the scheduled close of polls. As examples, California allows ballots to be opened and scanned seven business days before an election, Oregon seven calendar days before an election and Colorado ten days before an election.2 Hawai`i should allow the processing of prior to Election Day to ensure that the most complete results are available to the public on election night.
Section 2. 2. of this bill defines a ballot and includes language which says "It shall also include the face of the mechanical voting machine when arranged with cardboard or other material within the ballot frames, containing the names of the candidates and questions to be voted on." This appears to be old language referring to lever voting machines which are no longer in use. We suggest that this language be taken from the bill and new language that reflects the use of electronic voting devices be put in its place.
We suggest that the language in Section 5 of the bill dealing with removal of voters from the register be reviewed to ensure that it complies with the National Voter Registration Act.
SB 219 does not set a timeline for vote-by-mail. While the League of Women Voters strongly supports establishing a vote-by-mail system in Hawai`i we do not underestimate the fact that this would be a major process change. Adequate voter education, sufficient time to acquire and test additional ballot scanning and/or counting equipment, select drop off locations, etc. is necessary to ensure success. For this reason, we believe that it would be appropriate to implement voting-by-mail in stages. We recommend an approach that allows Kaua`i County to begin vote-by-mail elections in 2016, adding Maui and Hawai`i Counties in 2018 and conducting vote-by-mail elections in all counties beginning with the primary of 2020. This approach will allow the office of elections and the county clerks to systematically implement vote-by-mail.
This bill allows for an appropriation, which is appropriate. We rely on the office of elections and county clerks to articulate what is needed to conduct elections by mail, and we recommend that adequate funding be made available to ensure the necessary funds to implement this important voting change.
The League of Women Voters of Hawai`i strongly supports the establishment of vote-by-mail elections in this State and hope that our comments on this bill will help in that effort. Our members are experienced, trusted volunteers in election and voting operations, including voter registration drives, working at polling places, counting centers and the State control center. We urge you to consider our comments and thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony.
11Hawai`i State Office of Elections: http://hawaii.gov/elections/
22California Elections Code section 15101, Oregon Revised Statutes 254.478, Colorado Statutes 1-7.5-107.5