Chairman Hee, Vice Chair Shimabukuro, and Committee Members
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii supports the intent of S.B. 854, voting by mail. We note that several such bills have been introduced this session which seems to mean that there is growing support for the effort, including that of the governor.
We have been actively studying the vote-by-mail issue in Hawaii since 1997. In 1999, our members adopted an official position: support adequate safeguards to preserve the integrity of the ballot used in absentee voting and elections by mail, to insure fairness to all voters, and to minimize the opportunity for fraud.
THERE ARE PROS AND CONS TO VOTE BY MAIL
Some Reasons to Vote-by-Mail
There are many good reasons to implement statewide voting-by-mail including ease and convenience for the voter, more time for thoughtful and informed study of the ballot, production of a good paper trail for manual auditing purposes, and reduced expenses at polling places (with fewer staff and less equipment required for the precincts). Being able to vote by mail has the advantage of not having to miss work (many people cannot take time to vote no matter what the law says) or stand in lines in the rain or hot sun to vote. The polls are not open for enough hours for many working people, especially those who have long commutes to and from work.
Hawaii’s current hybrid voting system, with a combination of voting at polling sites while also allowing unlimited absentee balloting is certainly more complicated and probably more expensive than vote-by-mail only . 1 When Hawaii registered voters do vote, they like and increasingly use absentee ballots, with some 25.4% of voters casting absentee ballots in the 2008 general election, and 28.4% in the 2012 general election.
Some Issues with Vote by Mail –
Privacy and Intimidation-
It is true that with vote-by-mail a household member could look over one’s shoulder to see how you voted. The secrecy of how one votes is not guaranteed when voting by mail. But once the ballot is completed and the voter puts the ballot in a "secrecy" envelope that contains no identification of the voter this risk is greatly reduced. Then the secrecy envelope is put into an outer envelope which the voter must sign. When voting by mail or voting absentee, there is no problem in guaranteeing the secrecy of the ballot after it arrives at the counting center or elections office. That signature is then compared to the signature that appears on the voter registration form. After verification, the privacy envelope containing the ballot is removed from the outer envelope, and then opened in a separate process. Once the privacy envelope is separated from the outer envelope, there is no way to reestablish which ballot goes with which name.
Another threat is that a voter will be enticed or coerced into casting a vote that’s different from his or her true preference. This kind of corruption is very hard for voting officials to detect. And more insidious, some voters themselves may not even realize that it’s unethical.
Election officials need to be able to effectively track the number of ballots sent or returned under a vote-by-mail system. Bar codes on envelopes are widely available to help with this tracking, and these can also enable a voter to check the status of their individual ballot.
Compared with verifying signatures at poll sites (which is no longer required in Hawaii), no ballot can be accepted without signature verification. Signature verification technology is now available to enhance this labor intensive process.
A Last Word about Voter Turnout –
We must consider vote-by-mail knowing there are no guarantees such an approach will result in robust (or even increased) voter turnout. In a 2008 study of Oregon’s voting system results suggested that Oregon’s voter turnout increased by about 10% of registered voters in both presidential and mid-term elections due to the vote-by-mail reform there.2 The latest research of what happened in Washington State shows modest two to four point effect increase in voter turnout from all-mail elections, but that the effect begins to decay as time passes.3
But other previous research drawing on data from a large sample of California counties in two general elections found that voting by mail does not deliver on the promise of greater participation in general elections. In fact, voters who were assigned to vote by mail turned out at lower rates than those who were sent to a polling place. Analysis of a sample of local California special elections, by contrast, indicates that voting by mail can increase 4 turnout in these otherwise low-participation contests. 5
WHAT WE LIKE ABOUT SB854
A More Realistic Target Date
S.B. 854 authorizes the Office of Elections to develop a statewide system mandating vote by mail elections by 2016. This is actually an ambitious target date; a shorter time span would not allow for adequate development of the system. The respective responsibilities of the State and Counties must be sorted out before proceeding, and more analysis must be done to quantify the long-term cost-benefit of a change. The State Office of Elections and the County Clerks need sufficient time to prepare any new policies and procedures for this change, to analyze what resources are needed to carry out their responsibilities.
Our understanding of a key factor in Oregon’s successful vote-by-mail system is that Oregon planned this change over the course of ten years, gradually investing in vote-by-mail infrastructure and systematically preparing voters for this modernization.
Everyone Receives a Mailed Ballot, but Voting in Person is Still Possible
Importantly, this bill does not propose to force people to vote-by-mail. Rather, voters could still vote at a precinct if they prefer, by turning in their mailed ballot and envelope and voting a regular ballot. While supporting voting by mail, the bill provides that a limited number of polling places be made available for voters with special circumstances, such as no mailing address, or someone who does not want to receive a ballot at home. The State has already identified early voting polling locations, and these could receive drop-off ballots from those who do not want to mail them in.
Voters would be Prepared for Conversion to Vote-by-Mail
S.B. 854 has a provision to educate the public about the new system of voting so that there will be no surprises come Election Day. It also mandates that the Office of Elections provide updates to the legislature on the progress of implementing voting by mail starting in 2014.
The League would like to see a more robust voter education program, sponsored by the Office of Elections. This would include instructions about the mechanics of voting. Prospects for better use technology such as videos and web broadcasts are good, and League supports moving forward so that voters are better informed.
Election Day Registration
Last year the legislature passed a bill permitting online registration effective in 2016. With this online system in place, people who want to go to walk-in voting centers on Election Day should be able to vote that day, after completing all requirements for registering to vote, and after Office of Elections officials have used the online voter registration database to verify they have not already registered and are otherwise eligible to vote.
Polling places would also be able to register new voters or those that must reregister because of name change, new address or just updating their signature, which may have changed over the years. Those that have registered people to vote know that many do not realize they must reregister when any of the above changes take place.
Hawaii election law already allows same day registration but it is cumbersome and time consuming at this time. The ballots are provisional. This was understandable because there was so easy way to check the information in a timely manner. With the new data base mechanism available it will be possible to register voters and count that ballot on Election Day.
A MORE COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH IS REQUIRED
Now, having said what we like in SB854, we point out that individual election bills before you in the 2013 session address many important issues, but no bill includes everything that should be in a vote-by-mail bill.
The League of Women Voters has been studying SB854 and other bills from the 2013 session, and we believe key bills should be combined into a more comprehensive vote-by-mail package. In our previous studies, we found that jurisdictions that tried voting by mail without adequate laws and rules did not fare well. There were irregularities which caused mistrust and that was the end of voting by mail. But the state of Oregon has worked with voting by mail for years now, having permanently installed vote-by-mail in 1999 by an initiative of the people. This means if the people didn’t like it, they could have voted it out. So Oregon provides a model for workable legislation and rules.
We do not support all features of the bills we now mention, but point out features of measures we do like.
1) First things first. A formula for allotting costs and responsibilities between the state and counties is essential. (See S.B. 412)
2) While we do not agree that there should be a walk-in voting center in every precinct as required in SB 720 and SB579, these bills contain many other good provisions, permitting the Chief Election Officer, with the advice from the county clerks and election administrators, to establish rules and procedures for signature verification of returned ballots.
3) We could strengthen precautions about voter intimidation. A short statement to be printed on the ballots about the secrecy of the absentee ballot and a warning about penalties for voter fraud and unduly influencing or trying to influence a person on how to vote or not to vote is a good idea ( HRS 19-3 (6) or the more inclusive proposed HB 1027. (Also in SB 720).
4) Make secure drop-off ballot deposit boxes available at convenient locations such as fire or police stations, libraries, or if manned, in parking lots, etc., as called for in SB 579.
5) We do not recommend pre-paying postage for the returned ballots, as recommended in SB579. The expense would be enormous. With all the opportunities available for dropping off ballots, anyone choosing not to mail the ballot should have no problem getting it in on time.
Finally, we respectfully suggest that everyone check the Multnomah County (Oregon) website to watch the video on how a partly mechanized vote by mail election is operated. It’s quite a system and very suitable for large metropolitan areas (Portland and surroundings are in Multnomah County and about the size as Honolulu). As someone once said, a picture is worth a thousand words and this video is worth a lot more.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration of the issue of voting by mail. It is not an easy topic but, with care, it will work very well.
1This is one of the important questions that should be investigated between now and 2016.
1 Richey, S. (2008), Voting by Mail: Turnout and Institutional Reform in Oregon. Social Science Quarterly, 89: 902–915. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2008.00590.x
3 Gerber, Alan S., Huber, Gregory A. and Hill, Seth J. “Identifying the Effects of Elections Held All-Mail Turnout: Staggered Reform in the Evergreen State,” June 29, 2012. Center for the Study of American Politics.
4 Kouser, Thad and Megan Mullin, “Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation? Using Matching to Analyze a Natural Experiment,” Political Analysis, Political Analysis (2007) 15:428–445 doi:10.1093/pan/mpm014
5 Ibid., p. 1.