Voting by mail gets another look


POSTED: Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hawaii's consistently dismal voter turnout and a state election system in jeopardy because of a lack of funds has renewed interest in a vote-by-mail balloting.

“;The budget crunch is an opportunity for us to think out how we can make the system work better,”; says Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democratic Party chairman. “;We have got to take a serious look at making some aggressive and quick changes.”;

Schatz is worried that Kevin Cronin, state chief elections officer, will not have enough money to properly plan for the 2010 election.

“;It is not acceptable to run an election badly,”; Schatz said.

The 2010 election is expected to be pivotal in Hawaii because the governorship is open, and if Mayor Mufi Hannemann joins that race, the Honolulu mayor's seat will also be open. Also, a number of legislators are thinking about leaving relatively safe positions to run for lieutenant governor.

“;The time is now to seriously consider mail elections,”; said Cronin, although he added that they should be phased in through several elections.

Already Oregon and Washington state conduct their elections with ballots mailed to registered voters. Just one county out of Washington's 39 counties still holds elections with walk-in precinct voting.

Last week Cronin went public with his pleas to free restricted funds for the Elections Office. Cronin said he doesn't have enough money to start the detailed planning needed for 2010 elections, and Schatz said that is enough of an emergency to start thinking outside the box.

“;The election chief is saying he's worried he can't pull this off,”; Schatz said. “;Well, I'm not interested in rolling the dice next year.”;

The feeling of experimentation is not shared by Schatz's Republican counterpart, Jonah-Kuhio Kaauwai.

The local GOP chairman is against mail-in ballots because “;they facilitate voter fraud,”; Kaauwai said. “;Brian Schatz and other Democrats would be for mail-in ballots because they know their campaign financiers and major supporters, the union bosses, will do whatever it takes to ensure their candidates win.”;

Schatz said Hawaii's election turnout could be increased by mailing ballots. He said he thinks it would be less expensive than buying or leasing voting machines for more than 260 polling precincts. Last year the state spent $6.8 million for voting machines.

The system in Washington and Oregon appears to work well, officials said.

“;Voting by mail increases turnout, simplifies the election process and promotes an informed citizenry,”; concluded a study of the vote-by-mail program conducted by the Washington secretary of state in 2007.

But there are concerns here.

Rep. Blake Oshiro, Democratic majority leader, said the issue has been explored several times in the Legislature and has failed to pass.

Oshiro said he was not impressed with the 45 percent turnout in the recent Windward District City Council race, which was conducted mostly by mail with some voting at City Hall and the Pali Golf Course.

Special elections usually have a lower turnout than regularly scheduled contests.

A special Council election in 2002 had a turnout of 27 percent and a special congressional election had a turnout of 13 percent in the primary and 21 percent in the general election. These were done by conventional polling.

Glen Takahashi, the city's elections chief, said the Council vote-by-mail election now being conducted appears on schedule to also have about 45 to 50 percent turnout.

But Oshiro said, “;If the current election doesn't demonstrate enhanced turnout, it raises questions about going in that direction.”;

Takahashi and Cronin also have concerns about holding an all-mail election in 2010. Both say more planning is needed.

Takahashi cautions that the city's mail-in voting system appears easy, but there are a lot of complications.

“;The vote by mail as a cost saving (step) is not a panacea,”; Takahashi said. “;You shouldn't look at it by saying you are going to save money.”;

The city recently has conducted mail-in special elections because of a state law requiring the procedure for special elections.