Gathering Place
Rep. Cynthia Thielen

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Mandatory mail voting
is a bad idea for Hawaii

Sometimes the nicest-sounding ideas turn out to have the worst possible consequences. A bill to mandate voting by mail is one example -- sounds good but it is fraught with problems.

The proposal, as originally suggested by some of the Democrats in the state Legislature, would have required mandatory statewide voting by mail only, effectively stopping a citizen's ability to go to the polls on election day. The current version of the bill (Senate Bill 433) establishes a pilot program in three districts with the lowest voter turnout. While the definitions in the bill are still unclear, these districts likely would be District 10 (West Maui), District 11 (South Maui) and District 45 (Waianae-Makaha).

Proposals to increase citizen participation in our electoral process are certainly noble. There is genuine concern about declining voter turnout and apathy. But experts who have looked at this issue recognize that a mail-based system can result in both fraud and disenfranchisement.

Unlike voting in person, the mail system would not ensure that the person who is eligible to cast the vote actually receives the ballot. When you go to the polls you have to show identification and prove you are the voter before you are handed a ballot. A ballot sent to a post office box, or even a home address, can be opened by anyone and filled in. Voting at the polling booth better ensures there is as little chance as possible that anyone but the voter received the ballot, marks the ballot and casts her or his ballot.

Verifying signatures also becomes a problem with an exclusive vote-by-mail system. In Oregon it was found that clerks who could not read or match a person's handwriting with the signature on file at the elections office actually tossed the ballot out. This meant your vote simply didn't count.

A third problem with vote by mail is the inability to verify that you have filled out your ballot correctly. Today's electronic ballot boxes reject a ballot if too many pukas have been filled in or if the person has voted for two different parties in a primary election. When an error is detected, the voter gets an opportunity to go back into the booth and correct her ballot. This verification process is absent in a vote-by-mail system. Voters hope for the best, but are never sure they filled out everything correctly and that their vote will be counted.

Finally, the premise behind vote-by-mail schemes is that it will increase voter participation. The facts have not shown this to be the case. In Oregon, the only state to use voting by mail, turnouts have been no higher than national averages. In fact, in a recent special election in Oregon, the turnout was a paltry 32 percent.

For all the above reasons, I have urged my colleagues in the House to reject the notion that they are doing something good, when the consequences could indeed be bad. Enfranchisement is one of the most precious gifts we have when we live in a democracy. Let's not lose it by banning people from going to the polls.

Cynthia Thielen is assistant minority floor leader in the state House of Representatives. She represents the 50th District (Kailua/Kaneohe Bay)

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