Honolulu opens ballot dropoffs early, neighbor islands protest

  • A ballot drop-off box at the county building in Hilo on Thursday shows a sign announcing it will be open Aug. 3. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

Voters on Oahu have greater access to the polls than those on the neighbor islands, as the City and County of Honolulu has already opened its ballot dropoff boxes to the public while neighbor island counties are using the Aug. 3 date set in state law.

The drop-off boxes — called “places of deposit” in the law — have become critical as some voters have had their mailed ballots returned to them because of errors at the post office, leading some to choose an alternative route. Hawaii Island, larger geographically than all the other islands combined, has just two voter service centers to accommodate voters unable to vote by mail.


Because statewide candidates and a race for an open congressional seat are on the primary ballot, equal access to the polls is especially important. With Honolulu’s drop boxes available longer, it could give Oahu a louder voice in races affecting all the islands.

The ballot includes four of the nine trustee seats for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, as well as candidates in various political parties for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

“(Chief Elections Officer) Scott Nago needs to say we have to open the drop boxes early or not. Everybody should be on the same page,” said Susan Irvine, who’s on the board for the League of Women Voters-Hawaii County chapter. “It needs to be fair and it’s not right now. … We should have equal access and we don’t.”

In an all-mail election, allowing greater access to ballot dropoffs on one island could be compared to allowing one island to have its polling places open longer in a more conventional walk-in election, Irvine said.

This is the state’s first attempt at an all-mail election, and glitches are to be expected. Ballots sent out a week earlier than originally planned, completed ballots returned to voters by post office systems reading the return address as the destination address and voters complaining they didn’t get a ballot at all have contributed to the uncertainty.

Neal Milner, retired University of Hawaii political science professor and political analyst, says inconsistencies and problems can make voters less trusting of the ballot process, especially in an era where partisan politics on the mainland has made mail-in ballots a political issue.

“It’s an inconsistency that’s probably nested in practice and the kind of discretion typically given the counties in elections,” Milner said. “These kinds of inconsistencies can make people less certain about their vote.”

At issue is this clause in the new state law setting an all-mail election for 2020: “The clerks may designate and provide for places of deposit to be open five business days before the election until 7:00 p.m. on the day of the election; provided that the locations and apparatus for receiving voted ballots can be securely maintained during the period of use for each election, and as may be permitted by the operational hours.”

Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties interpret the law to mean voters can start using their ballot dropoff boxes five days prior to the Aug. 8 election.

“We’re following the law,” Hawaii County Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto said Friday.

“Per the State Proclamation, Maui County’s ‘Places of Deposit’ aka ‘Ballot Drop Boxes’ are scheduled to go live the morning of August 3 through 7 p.m. August 8 (close of primary Election Day),” Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu said in an emailed response Friday.

But Honolulu Elections Administrator Rex Quidilla said the language sets Aug. 3 as the latest day the boxes can be opened, not the only day. Honolulu opened its dropoff boxes July 21.

“They’re making use of the option to bypass the USPS,” Quidilla said of Oahu voters. “We interpreted it as the requirement that that was the minimum requirement. … We made the decision that the ballot drop boxes would be useful to Honolulu voters who had concerns over mailing them.”

West Hawaii Today contacted the state Elections Office Friday via email and in a telephone message to Nago to ask if there was a plan to send out an advisory to all the counties to clarify the law.


Nago didn’t reply by press-time Friday, but Nedielyn Bueno from his office sent an email.

“Given that the counties have their own corporation counsels that the counties are advised by relating to federal, state, and county laws that they are responsible for implementing, we cannot speak for the counties as to how they have interpreted their responsibilities under these laws,” Bueno said.

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