See Council election as pilot program of Oregon system


POSTED: Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Even with Hawaii-born Barack Obama at the top of last November's ticket, Hawaii had the nation's lowest voter turnout, an embarrassing and familiar finish. State legislators should take a close look at this month's Windward Oahu election of a City Council member mostly by mail. The procedure is similar to Oregon law, which has caused that state's voter turnout to blossom.

Only 60 percent of Oregon's registered voters cast before it adopted a system in 1998 mailing ballots to all eligible voters, who have two to three weeks to fill out and return them by mail or at centralized drop-off locations. Last year, 68.1 percent cast votes, 12th highest in the country. That is the system being used by the city to conduct an election to replace Barbara Marshall, who died Feb. 22.

In Hawaii, only 50.9 percent of eligible voters cast votes, more than 11 percent below the national average. The islands are at or near the bottom in voter turnouts in every election. In 2000 a dismal 44.1 percent voted in Hawaii, and no other state recorded lower than a 52 percent turnout.

Federal law provides that presidential elections be held on the same day throughout the nation, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Oregon law in 2001, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the absentee ballot process. The appellate court ruling covers nine Western states, including Hawaii.

A similar proposal has been introduced in the Hawaii Legislature for several years, including this year's session, to initiate such a pilot program in several legislative districts, but has not been acted upon. The City Council election this month should be seen as such a pilot program.

Oregon is the only state where ballots are sent to all registered voters. In several other states, absentee ballots are mailed to voters who have indicated they will be unable to vote at polling places.

Windward voters have been mailed a ballot that they are to fill out and return by mail in envelopes bearing their signatures to the city clerk or drop off at City Hall or Pali Golf Course. The ballots are to be received by the city by April 23.

Eleven candidates are running for the seat, and voters will have an opportunity to research candidates as they decide whom to select. That contrasts with showing up at the polls and being surprised or mystified by the numerous unrecognizable names on the ballot. It also is more convenient than traveling to the polling place.

A mail-in system would be well worth the price of a stamp. A study of the Oregon results showed that the statute saves about $3 million per election because no poll watchers need to be hired.