Every vote counts? How thousands of ballots fall through the cracks

voting election ballot election

Voting by mail is now the way most people cast their ballots in Hawaii elections.

With election security in the national spotlight, we wanted to know what’s in place to ensure Hawaii’s election runs smooth.

Vote by mail is a massive operation with a lot of checks and balances, and also opportunities for someone’s vote to fall through the cracks, or even be invalidated without them ever knowing.

A tsunami of envelopes is flowing through the mail stream — absentee votes cast statewide without ever having to walk into a polling place.

More than 222,000 of them so far this general election have been sent to requesting voters. The return-rate trend has been around 85 percent, more than double the overall voter turnout rate.

“Absentee mail has just constantly gone up over the years,” explained Chad Kadota, election administrator for Honolulu County, which has sent out about nearly 151,000 as of Monday. “The most ever. It’s definitely trending upward.”

But at many points along the way, those ballots could end up in limbo.

More than 4,600 voters who asked for an absentee ballot statewide in the primary election this year never got it because it bounced right back. The bulk rate paid on the “sent from a mass-mail vendor” doesn’t cover forwarding, even if a new address is on file with the postal service.

Always Investigating asked, has the county ever thought of notifying those people hey you’re still wrong in our system?

“At that point, all we have is that address,” Kadota said. “If that address is bad, that falls on the voter to update that information. If the voter did not receive their ballot and they’re wondering why, the best is to just contact our office and we can research what’s going on.”

Honolulu County says only about a dozen such calls came in at the primary. The other islands didn’t track the call volume.

Poll workers say far more than that grumbled to them.

“I saw a lot of people being very disappointed and angry that they didn’t get their absentee ballots in the mail and coming in and wanting to vote,” said Alyn Vasquez-Dela Cerna, an Aiea-area voter assistant.

Always Investigating asked Vasquez-Dela Cerna how many people came in to just her polling place saying they had not gotten their absentee ballot in the mail?

“Over 50,” she said, adding that other location workers said the same.

“We tell them and they try to fix it, and I give them that credit. It’s run by good people,” she said of the elections offices. “They know they had a problem, and they’re trying to fix it.”

We found 250 people who were sent mail ballots ended up voting instead in person at the polls. That’s okay to do as long as the mail one hasn’t already been cast.

Nearly 50 who already had voted at the polls also later sent a mail-in ballot, but the machine caught and spit out the subsequently mailed-in ones. Those also are not required to be investigated. A handful of folks were stopped from in-person voting because poll workers caught that they already mailed one in. They were turned away, not turned in for any offense.

If they insist it wasn’t they who voted, they can cast a provisional ballot. More than 100 provisionals were cast in the primary for this and other reasons, 21 of which were deemed valid for counting.

But how many who never ended up getting an absentee ballot period just gave up?

“I have walked a lot in my district, and during my walk, I encourage a lot of applicants to do absentee,” said Rose Martinez, a House District 40 candidate. “A lot of them, very, very many, so many did not receive their ballot. I would say 50 people I followed up with did not receive their ballots and it’s so frustrating. Unfortunately, a lot of them are workers and if they are working in Waikiki and they are not able to get back to Ewa Beach to vote in time, it’s defeating the purpose.”

“In 2014, we lost by some 80 odd votes. This past primary election, we lost by 37 votes,” said former candidate Tracy Arakaki. “So you know when a race is this close, it probably could have made a difference.

“I personally spoke to voters we were still canvassing five to seven days out of election and they still hadn’t receive the absentee ballots,” Arakaki added.

Election officials say those folks could be among the thousands of “undeliverables.” Others may think they signed up for permanent absentee but only checked the seasonal or one-time box, or may not have used the ballot the last time one was sent, and that can get you purged from the mail list the next time.

Or, they’re misremembering whether they signed up.

“They’re not certain if they did or didn’t,” Kadota said. “They thought they did, and they didn’t. We didn’t receive anything.”

But it’s not just in the mail-out process where voters can go off the radar. The very ballot itself can be in limbo even after the vote is cast.

We went behind the scenes with Honolulu County’s election team at its new processing facility to see how it all works.

The machine scans the received ballots, and spits out ones too thick, too thin or with a signature panel where something’s not right.

“If it has no signature, we put a letter with the actual ballot back and saying your ballot’s not signed so please sign it,” Kadota said.

The next step is a human scan of each and every envelope for signature verification. Matches gets submitted. If something’s still not right, it gets flagged for yet another look.

“That (ballot), you could escalate to one of us,” Kadota said as he looked over the shoulder of an election worker reviewing signature scans.

Several hundred signature mismatches were flagged on the neighbor islands in the primary. Those counties all opted to reach out to the voters and give a second chance.

Maui even sends a postage-paid return envelope.

Honolulu County has a different process where, if it’s ultimately deemed a complete mismatch, “they get invalidated and they get segregated and sealed up,” Kadota explained. “They do not get counted.”

They also do not get investigated.

“At this point in time, it’s just when we receive an absentee ballot that does not have a matching signature, laws state to just invalidate,” Kadota said.

Hundreds of Honolulu County ballots were invalidated in the primary for that reason. They’re only accessible by court order if someone contests an election within the deadline and that’s long past. Exactly who they are or if there are any trends or similarities among them won’t be known now.

Always Investigating asked, why isn’t the very mismatch itself investigated regardless of the count or non-count?

Officials declined to answer that one. Policymakers — not election managers — set the statute the way it reads. The state Office of Elections confirms Honolulu County is meeting the letter of the law.

In the primary, another 1,900 mailed-in ballots didn’t count because they arrived too late (1,032 on the Big Island, 450 on Oahu, 347 in Maui County and 60 on Kauai), so make sure you mail early. The postmark date and time is irrelevant. It must arrive to election offices or be hand-dropped at the polls by Election Day.

What if someone on the registered voter list has since died? We asked how to be sure their absentee ballots are blocked too.

The state gives county election officials a monthly list of deceased people, and the clerks cross-reference that with registered voter lists.

The most recent crosscheck for the general election was done this month, and some 600 registered voters were crossed off the voter list because they had died (437 on Oahu, 58 in Maui County, 31 on Kauai and 108 on the Big Island).

Five of those had sent in a ballot already, and those votes were invalidated (1 on Oahu and 4 on the Big Island).

In the 2014 election cycle, this death-match process eliminated 12,000 from the voter registration lists statewide.

“I think a great fix would be how things are handled on Election Day, where you have poll watchers from either party in attendance at the polling places. I think that should be done in regards to the absentee,” Arakaki said. “I don’t think that there’s any fraud going on, I just think there’s a lot of questions of when the ballots leave, how they’re structured. That needs to be monitored.”

The absentee process can be watched closely by registered observers, and has been in the past, but election officials say no one signed up this year.

Nov. 1 is the last day to request an absentee mail ballot. Early walk-in voting ends Nov. 5 and that’s also the last day to register. Election day is Nov. 8.

Click here for more information.

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