Mail could curb voter apathy


POSTED: Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Legislators understandably are reluctant to alter the voting process that resulted in their election to office, but the embarrassment of the nation's lowest voter turnout in the election of Hawaii-born Barack Obama as president calls for change. The success of voter turnout in April's special election for a City Council seat provides a framework for statewide balloting by mail.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported this week that only 51.8 percent of voting-age residents of Hawaii went to the polls in the 2008 presidential election. Only 25 percent of the eligible voters aged 18-24 voted. Hawaii's turnout also was the nation's lowest in 2002 and 2004. Nationally, 63.6 percent of all U.S. citizens ages 18 and older voted in November.

In recent elections, the percentage of registered voters who go to the polls in Hawaii has been rather high, but voter registration has been the lowest in the country.

In April, 49 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the special election in Windward Oahu of J. Ikaika Anderson to succeed his former boss, the late Barbara Marshall, on the City Council. That can be regarded as high turnout since it involved a single seat. Ballots were sent by mail to registered voters and were filled out and returned by mail or at centralized drop-off locations.

The process was similar to that in Oregon, where ballots are sent to all registered voters, filled in and sent back. The procedure was adopted in 1998 and was upheld in 2001 by the U.S. Supreme Court, rejecting a challenge that it violated a constitutional provision that presidential elections be held throughout the country on the same day.

Oregon previously had voter turnouts of 60 percent, but the state's turnout of eligible voters was 67.6 percent last year. Concerns that the process would be vulnerable to fraud have been unfounded.

In Washington state, ballots are mailed to all registered voters, and 88 percent of all voters cast their ballots by mail in 2006. Two of the state's counties have opted entirely for voting by mail, and that process is scheduled to be statewide in next year's election.

California law was changed in 2002 to allow voting by mail to any voter requesting it. A civil grand jury assigned to study the issue recommended yesterday that the law be changed to allow future elections in Sacramento County to be conducted solely by mail. The panel estimated that savings in the county could amount to $1 million per election by eliminating the cost of opening and maintaining polling places and equipment.

Low voter turnout in Hawaii has been blamed in the past on apathy and Democratic dominance. More likely, more people in Hawaii than elsewhere work at two or more jobs and have little time to journey to the polling station. Whatever the reason, voting by mail would enhance voter turnout and, by mainland accounts, save money.