Stateline Story

After Election Day Confusion, Hawaii Gov Pushes Full Mail-In Voting

  • November 27, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

On the heels of an Election Day plagued by long lines and mass confusion, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie says he's pushing for major changes to voting on the islands — mainly, the elimination of the traditional Election Day altogether.

Abercrombie will propose legislation in the coming session to move Hawaii toward a 100 percent mail-in voting system, he said Monday (November 26).

At least 32 states allow any voter to cast a ballot in the mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the governor's proposal would make Hawaii just the third state, joining Washington and Oregon, to make mail-in ballots voters' lone option statewide.

The announcement comes three weeks after an Election Day that Abercrombie said “tarnished the election process and eroded public confidence.” More than 20 polling places on the crowded island of Oahu ran out of paper ballots, forcing long waits for the few available machines, with many voters leaving in frustration.

“The right to vote is one of our most cherished duties as U.S. citizens. Therefore, we must ensure that our voting process runs smoothly and efficiently,” Abercrombie said.

The governor is convinced an all-mail election would bring those efficiencies. “Absentee ballots have seen a steady increase and use over the last several elections,” he said, “and there has been no evidence to question the accuracy and security of these ballots relative to traditional methods.”

Hawaii has experimented with going all mail-in in the past, with apparent success. In a special Congressional election held by mail in May 2010, turnout soared compared to previous special elections, where voters cast ballots in person, according to the Progressive States Network. And switching to mail cut down on administrative costs, as has been the case in Washington and Oregon.

But elections experts don't view mail-in voting in a universally positive light. Though adding vote-by-mail options to the traditional mix has generally boosted turnout, the same is not always true for compulsory postal elections. In some cases, it may actually decrease turnout.

That's what a 2009 analysis of more than 97,000 California voters who switched to from mail-in optional to mail-in only precincts found. In studying voting behavior across four elections, California researchers (sponsored by the Pew Center on the States, Stateline's parent organization), found that the odds of voting decreases by 13.2 percent following the switch. The drop-off was seen disproportionately among Asian and Hispanic voters and people living in urban areas.

That could be overcome, however, through better communication with voters. Participation improved when elections officials sent at least four mailings clarifying the switch, the researchers found.

Researchers have also found that mailed-in votes are more prone to fraud and errors than those cast in person. And unlike mistakes made at a polling place, errors made from afar are less likely to be fixed.

Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, according to a New York Times investigation last month. That's about double the rejection rate of in-person ballots. Experts also worry about the increased risk of voter coercion, particularly among voters in nursing homes.

“We have possibly gotten way ahead of ourselves in encouraging people to vote by mail,” Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said after releasing a report on the state of the electoral system last month. “It's pretty clear that the improvement we've gotten by having better voting machines in the precincts may be given back by having more and more people voting at home.”