Election Failures Prompt Discussion to Change Voting System

August 15, 2012, 4:50 PM HST · Updated August 22, 12:52 PM
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By Dave Smith

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A 2012 polling location on the Big Island. More than half polling places failed to open on time for the August 11 primary election. Photo by Josh Pacheco.

Problems that arose with voting over on the Big Island Saturday have officials questioning Hawaii’s current election system.

Governor Abercrombie said Sunday that he favors changing Hawai`i to a vote-by-mail system or even online voting if it could be done without security problems, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Abercrombie said the main issue is to make it more convenient for people to vote.

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The governor told the newspaper he also is considering asking state lawmakers to transfer all election authority back to the lieutenant governor, as it was before 1995. That’s when the Legislature created the state’s chief election officer, a position currently held by Scott Nago.

The state Office of Elections generally oversees elections and is supervised by an appointed Elections Commission. But the core election functions – assembling voter lists and the handling of the voting itself – is done by county clerks controlled by county councils.

Problems with the latter that surfaced in recent weeks on the Big Island included unscheduled closings of elections offices in both Hilo and Kona, firings of some election workers and having key others go out on sick leave.

The situation prompted state elections officials to complain that they were having trouble even contacting Big Island County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi.

The problems came to a head in Saturday’s primary election when delays in opening some polling places in Kona resulted in Abercrombie issuing a proclamation keeping all Big Island voting stations open an additional 90 minutes. The extension delayed the results here on Maui and in the rest of the state.

It is still not clear how many precincts failed to open on time. Initial reports said just a few were involved but that number continued to grow.

A press release issued by Abercrombie’s office said “multiple” polling places failed to open by 7 a.m. as dictated by state law. The proclamation itself said “more than half” of the polling stations were involved.

Kawauchi did not return a call seeking comment on the issue.

There are currently only two states that have all-mail voting. Oregon established the procedure through voter initiative in 1998 and Washington’s legislature approved a bill for mail voting last year.

According to a study by George Mason University, both rank high for voter turnout among the 50 states.

Increasing numbers of voters requesting to vote by mail-in absentee is what prompted Washington to make the change. According to a study by Washington’s secretary of state, the percentage of votes cast by mail went from 54% in 2000 to 88% in 2006.

The Oregon initiative was approved by 70% of the voters, and research by a University of Oregon political science professor indicated that mail-in voting encourages a greater election turnout.

Statewide, the turnout Saturday was 42.3% compared to 36.9% in the 2008 primary and 42.8% in 2010.

For the first time in Big Island history, more people voted by absentee ballot Saturday than went to the polls. There were 23,101 votes cast through absentee ballots in this election compared to 20,246 votes cast at polling stations.

The trend in Hawai`i County has been toward absentee voting. In the 2008 election, about 38% of the votes were absentee. That figure rose to 41% in 2010.

Statewide, the majority of voters —  52% — still go to the polls.

Kauai joined Hawai`i County in being the only counties in the state with a higher percentage of absentee voters. In fact, the Garden Isle had an even higher absentee percentage of 56%, compared to the Big Island’s 53%.

In the City and County of Honolulu, absentee voters cast 48% of all votes, while here on Maui they represented 45% of the total turnout.

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