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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Vote-by-mail offers a better way to ballot

Voting by mail changes the dynamics of elections. Where conventional polling at precincts narrows the focal point of campaigning to a single day, voters in a mail-in election have weeks to think about their positions on various candidates and issues.

What's sacrificed is the absolute security of the ballots. They leave the custody of government for their sojourn through the postal system and onto the tabletops of voters' homes or more precisely, the address that was at one point the home of a voter before returning.

Honolulu's recent experiment with the vote-by-mail model in the congressional special elections worked well enough that lawmakers ought to consider some form of mail voting in regular elections. A hybrid system that uses mail-in balloting and regional polling stations deserves careful review.

If the only standard of success were participation, then the special election earns only fair grades. A 53 percent turnout this time beat the return rate of past mail-ins, but clearly it takes more than at-home convenience to draw in the voters.

Oregon, which enabled all-mail elections in 1998, can get turnouts up to about two-thirds some years. But that figure typically falls on years off the presidential cycle, or in elections with low interest.

There are other advantages, though, cost savings being the most evident. Hawai'i spent about $900,000 on this special election, about a third less than it would have using regular polling stations. Don Hamilton, a spokesman for Oregon's elections office, cited typical savings closer to 40 percent.

The downside is security. Hamilton said that in its 12-year experience there has been no fraud of the scale that could force a revote. Voters must sign and have their signatures checked by trained staff, who do follow up on irregularities.

But things can go wrong. It's simply too tempting to fill in grandma's ballot when she's in the hospital, or send in that ballot sent to the people who moved out of the apartment six months ago. A 1998 mayoral election in Miami was invalidated after a probe found falsified signatures.

A foray into vote-by-mail here should at least require the spot-checking of signatures and tightening up of the voter rolls to weed out the dead and the departed.

What tips the scales in favor of mail-in elections, however, is voter preparation. Oregon and other states send out the ballot with a guide that helps voters research, at a more leisurely pace, the details of the issues and candidates before them.

This means fewer exasperated voters checking off names or the yes-no bubbles by ballot questions with little deliberation. And bringing more thought into elections is something worth pursuing, even if it means battling the usual bureaucratic inertia.