‘It was a big change’: County Clerk provides update on first all-mail election

  • Election workers at West Hawaii Civic Center are ready for walk-in voters for August's primary election. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Election worker Hiram Wilbur registers a voter for August's primary election Saturday at West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • William Greenan casts his vote in the primary election at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

More than 91% of the 65,000-plus votes cast in the Aug. 8 Hawaii County primary election were sent via postal mail during the state’s first all-mail election.

Of the remaining votes cast, about 5,000, or 7%, were dropped off at drop boxes, and just over 1%, or about 1,200 votes, were cast in-person on election day at the island’s two voter service centers.

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That’s according to Hawaii County Clerk Jon Henricks, who provided the update Tuesday to the Hawaii County Council’s Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development at the request of Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.

“This was our first mail-in ballot season and so I just wanted to take the time to talk to our clerk and share with the public what it was like,” Lee Loy said. “The State of Hawaii passed Act 136 implementing elections by mail beginning with this 2020 election and I think it went fantastic. But I wanted to take the opportunity to have a quick highlight of what happened during our primary.”

Henricks said Act 136, passed by the 2019 Legislature, was a “big change” from past traditional elections that afforded different opportunities for casting ballots, including voting my mail, early walk-in voting and Election Day voting at one of the 43 polling places islandwide.

“To go from those opportunities to essentially where I would say most voters, if not all, are placed into first category of voting by mail, it was a big change,” said Henricks.

Education played a critical role from the get-go, he said.

“I feel confident in saying the state Office of Elections took the lead. Mr. Scott Nago, our chief elections officer, the guy was everywhere; you couldn’t escape (him), he was on the radio, he was on television, he was in the newspapers, he was writing columns … I think he took the lead in his message and I think he did a good job in having a clear, succinct message in what voters would expect,” said Henricks, “and I think a lot of results, if you will so to speak, are attributed to the state understanding how important it was to get information out, to let voters know about this really big change in how we do things.”

Leading up to the primary, the county saw a surge of 9,000 new voters. Previous primaries saw increases of about 3,000 to 5,000 first-time voters.

“That’s almost a doubling, if you will, of (new) registered voters,” Henricks said. “It’s hard to say why, but that’s not due to elections by mail. That’s people who were registering to vote either during the course of this process or prior to it and getting their ballots in the mail.”

The thousands of new voters brought the county’s number of registered voters to 120,000, he said.

Roughly 54% of those voters cast ballots in the Aug. 8 election — an increase of about 21,000 from 2018.

Henricks described the turnout as “inspiring,” though noted it could be higher other states with all-mail voting, like Oregon. He expects increased voter participation in the Nov. 3 general election.

“I’ll just be blunt. Some people would say it wasn’t a successful election because that means that we have 60-some-odd-thousand people vote — well some 50,000 didn’t. I won’t ever say that an election was successful or not — what I would say is when we give people an opportunity to vote, we provide them the education, and we put all the infrastructure out there that we possibly can for them to complete the process, then that is a successful election,” Henricks said commending the state and county elections staffers.

Henricks said only “light touches at best” would be needed before Nov. 3.

“If something works, light touches to improve it, but careful considerate touches; it’s far from broken. So, fixes are not, I don’t think in order,” he said.

One thing Henricks said will be improved is messaging on when people should expect to receive ballots. He declined to provide any specific dates on Tuesday, however.

Discussion is also being had about opening drop boxes earlier after voters on Oahu were given access to the polls earlier than those on the neighbor islands.

“It’s been made clear to us by the state that it views the laws to be favoring opening them sooner than we did and they are actually encouraging us to do so. No commitments now, obviously, because it’s too far away but it’s something that we’re looking at,” Henricks said.

There’s also talk of installing more drop boxes on the island, though Henricks said “it’s not going to be that much more.”

“In a perfect world, we’d have one every 5 miles and people wouldn’t have to go far to use them. But the reality is there’s so much that goes into that. We want to make sure that it is secure. I don’t think you ever want to sacrifice security for access. There’s got to be a balance point when it comes to handling people’s ballots, and the more we expand ourselves, when it comes to access, you’re kind of crossing that threshold and you may be compromising a person’s security,” he explained.

Regarding concerns over the U.S. Postal Service, Henricks said “they did their jobs” by getting the 59,000 votes cast by mail to the county to be counted. He was reluctant to criticize the agency, which came under scrutiny when it began removing collection boxes, among other cost-cutting measures, ahead of the elections.

“The numbers say the Postal Service did their jobs and it’s very important to me as I want people to have confidence in the Postal Service,” said Henricks. “In order for elections by mail to work, the way it’s supposed to work, the way we believe it worked the first (time), people need to have confidence in it.”

However, the county did receive correspondence from the agency asking that voters be urged to mail back ballots at least one week prior to Election Day. He said the state Office of Elections will be taking that approach in the general election.

“I’m confident that the U.S. Postal Service will be there to do its job in the general election,” he said.

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Currently, the county is targeting a single-page ballot with candidates on the front and 16 charter amendment questions on the back for the general election.

“We’ll be putting out an insert in the paper that will have each ballot question, the summary of the proposal that was created by the commission itself, and the full text of the amendment so that people can see how the charter would change if they voted ‘yes,’” Henricks said.