Long wait for Hawaii vote spurs call for more voter centers

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FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, a long line of people waiting to vote stretches around City Hall on Election Day, in Honolulu. Voter advocates say Hawaii should set up more voter service centers after a last-minute surge of voter interest led to hours-long lines for in-person voting on Election Day even as the state shifted to a vote-by-mail system for casting ballots. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)

HONOLULU – Voter advocates say Hawaii should set up more voter service centers after a last-minute surge of interest led to hours-long lines for in-person voting on Election Day even as the state switched to a vote-by-mail system for casting ballots.

Overall, the state’s vote-by-mail election appears to have been a big success, leading to record numbers of voters participating. More than 69% of registered voters cast ballots, the highest ratio for the state since 1994. The overwhelmingly majority voted by mail.

Even so, there were hundreds of people in line at Oahu's two voter services centers when polls were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It took about four hours for the line at the Kapolei center to clear, delaying the release of election results until about 11:30 p.m.

Honolulu’s election administrator and lawmakers expressed skepticism that more facilities would make the difference. Sen. Chris Lee, one of the authors Hawaii's vote-by-mail law, said increasing the number of voter service centers is something that could be considered, but boosting education to get voters to act before Election Day would be effective to prevent a recurrence.

Hawaii's law calls for ballots to be mailed to all registered voters. Voters may return their ballots through the mail or to specialized drop boxes. The law also gives voters the option to vote in person at voter service centers, where people may also register to vote or get help with casting a ballot. The centers were open Monday through Saturday for two weeks starting Oct. 20.

Sandy Ma, the executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for good government, said she has been calling for more of these centers ever since she learned last year there would only be eight spread around the state.

She said Common Cause supports vote-by-mail because it improves voter turnout and allows voters to study their electoral choices in the comfort of their homes. Yet she said some people need in-person voting. Students and homeless individuals, for example, move a lot and may not get their ballot in the mail. Or people may need language translation or help reading their ballot.

Ma said people waited between two to four hours on Tuesday at the two voter centers on Oahu, an island with about 549,000 registered voters. Common Cause volunteers reported lines lasting one to two hours on Maui Island and in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island.

Rex Quidilla, the Honolulu elections administrator, attributed the long lines in part to the large numbers who showed up to register to vote or update their voter registration information. Voter registration takes time and can't be automated, he said.

Another factor was people who view voting in person on Election Day as sacrosanct and something they wanted to do.

Quidilla said 4,520 people showed up to vote on Tuesday on Oahu. About 40 percent of them were registering to vote as well.

This number compares with an average of about 1,000 who showed up at the centers each day over the previous 12 days.

Lee said more education to make people aware that they can vote early and not at the last minute would help, as would efforts to counter misinformation that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud.

Lee said unfounded allegations by President Donald Trump and others about voting by mail made some question whether they should vote by mail even though there is no evidence such problems are widespread. Lee said voting by mail is in many ways more secure, given the signatures and bar codes on mail-in ballots and the option voters have to go online to check the status of their ballots.

Lee said the intent in Hawaii was to maximize voting. The record-breaking turnout “is a huge win for everybody,” he said.

"And so now the question is, how do you tweak the process going forward to account for some of these unforeseen situations and improve it so that next election we can break records all over again and get a whole new generation of people involved?” Lee said.