Honolulu Neighborhood Board online election draws few voters
• Photo gallery: Neighborhood Board elections
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
The first all-digital and telephone election in the country drew less than 6.5 percent participation, down from 28 percent in the city's last Neighborhood Board elections, in 2007.
Unfamiliarity with an entirely new voting system is now being cited as one of the chief reasons "turnout" was so low in what had been hailed by the city and election system vendor Everyone Counts as the first of its kind.
Joan Manke, Neighborhood Commission executive director, said yesterday she was "very disappointed" with the results. "My sense is because it's something new, change often takes time."
Manke said the public needs time to become educated and familiar with a system that is safe, secure and accessible.
"People are so used to paper ballots," she said.
The commission office mailed out an estimated 115,000 "passwords" and notifications of the upcoming election to registered O'ahu voters who had voted in the 2008 primary or general elections and who live in districts where there were contested Neighborhood Board seats.
Those living in districts with contested board seats but who were not registered with the city Office of Elections could have taken part in the neighborhood elections but would have needed to register with the commission office by Feb. 20. Fewer than 50 people went that route in order to vote, the Neighborhood Commission said.
The passwords allowed people to vote either online or via an automated phone system. While there were a few issues dealing with phone voting, they were not widespread and were resolved, commission office staff said.
In that respect, "my sense is it was very successful," Manke said.
Islandwide, 7,289 people voted during the eligible period between May 6 and May 22.
In the 2007 election, 44,047 votes were cast, a turnout of 19 percent of registered voters but 28 percent of those who received notices in the mail. Of that number, only about 4,000 votes, roughly 10 percent, were cast online.
Neighborhood Boards were set up under then-mayor Frank Fasi as advisory panels and to serve as conduits between city hall and O'ahu's neighborhoods. There are 445 seats up for grabs every two years. This year, only 16 of the 33 boards had contested races.
Whether future board elections will give eligible voters the option to mail in ballots is a decision that will be up to the Neighborhood Commission between now and the 2011 election, Manke said. The City Council instructed the commission to go all-digital in the 2009 election as a cost-saving measure.
Council Chairman Todd Apo said he was surprised and disappointed by the low participation.
When council members raised the issue of going all-digital with the commission office last year, there were concerns about whether there would be enough time to implement the system in time for this year's elections, but no worries expressed about whether there would be widespread acceptance of a system without any paper ballots, he said.
"I hadn't heard any complaints about anyone trying to use the online system," Apo said, acknowledging that the council cut the commission's budget after urging the agency to go all-online.
"Obviously this needs to go through an evaluation period," he said.
Apo noted that during the recent special election for the Windward City Council seat, which was held completely by mail, approximately 45 percent of paper ballots were returned, showing that voters aren't completely nonreceptive to a new system.
Manke said a paper option would have driven the cost of the election to $220,000, largely in return-mailing expenses. Instead, this year's election cost $85,000 to $90,000, Manke said.
FIGURING IT OUT
Longtime board members had different theories about what happened.
Patty Yamashiro-Hironaka, secretary of the Kane'ohe Neighborhood Board, said that allowing the public the option of using paper ballots for at least one more election would have brought in a better "turnout."
"People are not used to Internet and phone-calling, people are going to have to get trained," Yamashiro-Hironaka said. "I don't think the old folks like it too much, it's not something they're used to."
Tom Heinrich, chairman of the Manoa Neighborhood Board and a former Neighborhood Commission member, said publicity is key. "We need to do a lot more in terms of promotion and education," he said.
Heinrich, like Manke, said he was satisfied with the security and accessibility of the all-digital system, issues that were raised previously.
Jane Sugimura, a member of the 'Aiea Neighborhood Board, said she attributes the lower turnout to a general marginalization of the neighborhood board system in recent years.
Not only are there fewer people wanting to be board members, she said, elected officials seem to be not taking them as seriously as in the past. For instance, she said, fewer of them are showing up at monthly meetings.
"We're not being nurtured, we're not being asked to contribute," she said.