Mail-in vote could boost turnout


POSTED: Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The special election to replace Neil Abercrombie in Congress provides Hawaii's voters and election officials a prime opportunity to refine a promising vote-by-mail process and improve the state's pitiful voter turnout.

That the state Office of Elections had even considered leaving the 1st Congressional Seat vacant until the next regular election was absurd, and the state government was correct to ultimately reject that option, no matter how dire its budget woes.

The $925,000 cost of holding the special election is a pittance compared to the cost of leaving Hawaii without full representation in the U.S. House a moment longer than necessary.

Now that the state has scraped up the cash to conduct a mail-in vote and set May 22 as the date to finalize the outcome, close attention must be paid to ensure that participation is as robust as possible.

The special election is a winner-take-all contest to fill the remainder of Abercrombie's term, which expires in January. He resigned Sunday to run full time for governor.

Democrats Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa and Republican Charles Djou are in the running, each hoping to be the incumbent when the regular election for a two-year term occurs in November.

Roughly half of Hawaii's residents are eligible to vote in the urban Honolulu district, making the special election the largest mail-in vote in state history and an excellent opportunity to improve on the process used quite successfully in a special City Council election last year.

Proper promotion and timely delivery of ballots should ensure higher participation than if voters had to walk in on a single day; mail-in balloting will last about two weeks, with a deadline of May 22. Results will be issued that day, in a single printout.

Only 51.8 percent of Hawaii's eligible voters—a national low—participated in the last presidential election, even with Hawaii-born Barack Obama on the ballot.

Participation in local elections can be even lower. In the special City Council election, turnout was 41 percent by mail. But that was a vast improvement over a special election in the same district in 2002, when only 27 percent of eligible voters walked in to cast a ballot.

With interest in the hotly contested House race so high, election officials should be able to capitalize on a method that simultaneously increases voter turnout and saves the state money.