All-Mail Voting Increases Turnout and Saves Money in Hawaii Special Election

Results from Hawaii's recent all-mail special election for Congress are in--and the clear winner was the mail voting system that dramatically increased turnout and saved the state sorely needed money. 

After two costly special elections in 2002, state lawmakers passed a law allowing an all-mail voting system under the extraordinary circumstances requiring a special election.  Hawaii has actually held two mail-only special elections since the law’s enactment, in order to fill mid-term vacancies on the Honolulu City Council — turnout was already significantly higher than a similar City Council special election held in 2002.  But this month’s embittered special election for the 1st Congressional District involved about six times as many voters as either of last year’s races, and was the first congressional race in the state to be decided by an all-mail system.

Voters were required to mail ballots by a May 22 deadline and had the option of using City Hall as an absentee polling place for 10 days to allow voters the option of walk-in voting, although no polling places were open on the actual Election Day of May 22.  The result? 

  • Higher Turnout:  More than 170,000 ballots out of 317,000 mailed were returned.  The 54 percent turnout rate was significantly higher than the 13.3 percent turnout rate for the 2003 Congressional special election in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.  In fact, this year’s turnout even surpassed 2009’s all-mail special elections, which attracted 41 and 45 percent of voters respectively.
  • Saved Money:  While a traditional election would have cost an estimated $1.2 million, the mail-in election cost only $925,000 -- a nice boon for a state election system jeopardized by lack of funds
  • Simpler Logistics:  Not only did voting by mail prove to be less expensive, but it was also logistically easier than having to contend with polling places.  As Tim Scott, elections director of Oregon’s Multnomah County, stated, “You don’t have to worry about a janitor not showing up to unlock a school building.”  And Glen Takahashi, Honolulu Elections Administrator said, “You don’t have to line up all the logistics — is this facility available?  Can I train, recruit and staff the number of polling places required?”
  • Decreased Value of Last-Minute Negative Campaigning:  Commonplace campaign tactics funded by corporate interests and large donors are also watered down because ballots can be cast over a three week period.  By the time eventual-winner Charles Djou (R) had released a TV ad attacking challenger Ed Case (D) in the final weekend before May 22, two-thirds of likely voters had already mailed back their ballots.  Candidates had to revise their tactics, and there was less incentive to be negative — Ed Case's strategy peaked as voters were receiving their ballots, while Colleen Hanabusa (D) focused on driving voter turnout.

Democratic Party of Hawaii Chairman Dante Carpenter praised the election for being “expeditious” and “less costly,” stating that mail-in elections are “a coming thing.”  Though Hawaii is slated to have traditional polling places for this year’s general election, the success of its mail-in system offers a great lesson in how states can, easily and cheaply, further democracy.

Though 28 states currently allow any voter to choose a mail-in absentee ballot, states can go one step further and implement an all-mail voting system.  Not only are vote-by-mail contests cheaper to pull off, more efficient, and less of a logistical challenge, but as Oregon, Washington*, and now Hawaii have seen, mail-in elections help restore the democratic process by increasing voter turnout and lessening the impact of expensive tactics in the final days before an election.

* 38 out of 39 counties in Washington have switched to an all-mail system.

Progressive States Network - Permanent Vote by Mail Option Approved in First State East of Mississippi
Progressive States Network - Voting by Mail and Before Election Day: States Open Multiple Paths to the Ballot Box
Common Cause - What We Know About Vote by Mail Elections and How to Conduct Them Well