Hawaii stakes high in all-mail House vote
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
The history of Hawai'i elections begins a new chapter next month when more than 300,000 O'ahu voters receive their ballots for the hotly contested 1st Congressional District special election.
The city held two mail-only special elections last year to fill two mid-term vacancies on the City Council. Those elections went off without any glitches, but each consisted of about 50,000 voters.
The congressional race involves a much larger voter base — and much higher stakes, with the winner going to Washington. Already drawing national attention, the race is expected to be closely contested between former congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, both Democrats, and Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican.
The winner will replace Neil Abercrombie, who resigned Feb. 28 to focus on a gubernatorial run.
Election officials say candidates and voters alike will need to make some adjustments for what is defined as a "vote-by-mail" contest.
But officials also believe going all-mail is somewhat cheaper, more efficient and less of a logistical challenge, especially given the short timeline.
What's more, there's some evidence suggesting that mail-in special elections result in higher voter turnout than does a traditional special election.
How smoothly this election goes could perhaps determine whether future, regularly scheduled elections might go all-mail.
The 1st Congressional District consists of about two-thirds of O'ahu's voters: all of Honolulu (Makapu'u to Hālawa), 'Aiea, Pearl City, Mililani, Mililani Mauka, 'Ewa, 'Ewa Beach and a portion of Waipahu. As of last week, the district contained 316,000 voters, an increase of about 3 percent since the beginning of the year.
The election will cost just over $900,000, Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said. Election officials have estimated that a more traditional type of election would have cost roughly $1.2 million.
Private contractor Hart Intercivic will provide the equipment and technical assistance for the election, including vote-counting and mailout.
Ballots and instruction packets will go in the mail at the beginning of May (rules specify 20 days before the election). To count, they must be received by the elections office by May 22.
An absentee polling place will be set up at City Hall from May 10 to May 20 to allow voters the option of "walk-in" voting.
As ballots come in, voters' signatures on an envelope are verified with signatures given at the time people registered, Nago said. He stressed that voters need to sign an outer envelope for ballots to count.
The ballots themselves will stay in an inner-sealed, anonymous envelope and stored until May 19. Beginning that day, envelopes will be fed "pre-scanned through the system and kept in a queue," but not actually counted, he said. "There's no way we can know what the results are. All we're doing is feeding the ballots into the machine."
A "first report" with the results from the bulk of votes cast, perhaps as much as 99 percent, will be released at 6 p.m. May 22. The small number of remaining votes, consisting of that day's mail pickup and last-minute walk-ins, would be counted, likely later that evening.
It was during the 2003 legislative session, following the 2002 special elections to fill the vacancies left by the conviction of Councilman Andy Mirikitani and the death of U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, that state lawmakers passed a law to allow state and county election offices to use the all-mail system under the extraordinary circumstances requiring a special election.
Election officials said they wanted the option to go to all-mail because of evidence that it would be more efficient from a logistics standpoint and possibly save money.
On the Mainland, the entire state of Oregon has been conducting elections by mail-only ballots for the past decade, while a good portion of jurisdictions in Washington state use vote-by-mail exclusively.
With just over 400,000 voters, Oregon's Multnomah County is comparable in size to the City and County of Honolulu's 460,000-plus voter base. The county includes nearly all of Portland, Oregon's largest city.
Tim Scott, Multnomah's elections director, said he took his job two years ago after holding a similar position in Virginia, which conducts traditional polling place elections.
Scott said unequivocally that he prefers all-mail elections.
"We'd never go back," he said.
"Vote-by-mail is great. I'm an elections administrator and it makes my life more difficult at times, but it's way more convenient for the voter. That's ultimately who benefits — the voter."
Voters in his county have 18 days to study their ballots and decide which candidates to pick.
Scott said because the election occurs over a three-week period, he has a smaller, centralized staff in one elections office that has to do more work. But that's offset by eliminating the logistical headaches of finding and managing polling sites and one-day workers.
"The big difference is just that the logistics of election day are just much simpler," he said. "You don't have to worry about a janitor not showing up to unlock a school building."
Glen Takahashi, Honolulu elections administrator, said mail-in elections have worked well for "medium-sized" elections such as the two the city was forced to hold last year when council members Barbara Marshall and Duke Bainum died within months of each other.
"You don't have to line up all the logistics — is this facility available? Can I train, recruit and staff the number of polling places that are required?" Takahashi said. "It's not impossible, but it's very difficult having done it in 2002 (for the special election to replace Mirikitani)."
The two mail-in only elections last year drew voter turnouts of more than 40 percent each, while the 2002 council special election drew only 27.6 percent.
In terms of cost, the first of last year's council special elections cost $220,000 and the second about $170,000.
"We just refined our processes and the vendors came in cheaper," he said of the significant savings for the second election.
The 2002 election cost about $160,000. "But that was in 2002," he said, noting that the comparison doesn't consider inflationary issues.
The mail-only process means both candidates and voters need to approach an election differently.
"Candidates need to get readjusted to the vote-by-mail scheme and how's it done because people start voting as soon as they get their ballots," Takahashi said. "I think the candidates have learned from watching (last year's) two special election campaigns that you've really got to be up and running early."
The three major candidates in the race have different feelings about the vote-by-mail process.
"I think it's a good thing," Case said. "I'm in favor of anything that makes voting easier and less expensive."
For the candidates, "obviously it accelerates everything," he said. "In a more normal election, you have the peak when the first absentee ballots go out, and another on election week. This way, you have to peak when the ballots go out and have to hold that peak throughout the election."
Crystal Kua, communications director for the Hanabusa campaign, said "mail-in elections make it more convenient for voters to participate because the ballots arrive at the homes and voters don't have to travel to polling places to vote. Hopefully, it will mean a higher participation rate."
One difference in strategy the Hanabusa camp will deploy is "get-out-the-vote education will probably run longer because of the duration of the election period" since the actual period ballots can be cast is over three weeks, Kua said.
Djou said his staff has some questions about the all-mail process that have not yet been answered by the elections office.
At this point, he said, "I don't know how concerned my campaign should be."
Most of the questions have to deal with security of the ballots and the integrity of an all-mail process. Djou said his camp wants to have a meeting to discuss issues such as who's in charge of the handling and inventory of the ballots, how and where they will be stored, and who will do the actual counting.
Rex Quidilla, the Office of Elections' voter services coordinator, said the all-mail election will incorporate security and monitoring features.
"Many of these safeguards and precautions are what we normally do for absentee mail ballots," he said.
Election staff were approached by Republican officials and "we've just not met with them yet," Quidilla said.
"The ballots will be secured and locked away ... and sealed so we know they haven't been tampered with," he said.
Security measures are in place at both the election office's Pearl City facility as well at the state Capitol, where the counting will take place.
Employees of the vendor will assist the elections staff in the actual inserting of ballots into the system, but just as with other elections, official observers from the political parties as well as nonpartisans will monitor each step, he said.
Djou said he believes a fair and impartial election can be achieved and that he supports an all-mail election.
"I'm fine with it as long my questions are answered," he said. "I want this to go smoothly and I think the example of the two previous (council mail-in) elections appeared to go very smoothly. But the stakes for this congressional election are so much higher. I mean, a couple of thousand votes can easily sway the difference here."