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Hawaii was ahead of other states in moving to a universal mail ballot system that greatly improved access to voting. Even with an improvement in voter turnout, the state’s turnout remained among the lowest in the country for the 2020 election. Lawmakers looked more deeply into the reasons.

They found that language troubles and homelessness are some of the biggest obstacles. 

Language problems can be a huge barrier for election participation. Around 26% of Hawaii’s households speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of residents who don’t speak English in the household, nearly half reported speaking it less than “very well,” according to data from a report by the Hawaii State Data Center

Earlier this year, the Hawaii state legislature passed H1883, a bill that requires mailed ballots to include instructions for how to get translation services. Ballots will need to list the instructions in the five most spoken languages in the state besides English: Tagalog, Ilocano, Japanese, Spanish and Hawaiian. 

The bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. Mark Nakashima, won’t take effect until the 2024 primary elections. Hawaii is still required to comply with the federal requirement to provide language assistance if a community exceeds a 5% population threshold for a language. 

Hawaii was one of the first states to adopt universal mail-in voting, even before risks associated with in-person voting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic popularized the idea. 

In 2019, Gov. David Ige signed HB1248, a bill that would require ballots to be mailed to all eligible voters starting with the 2020 primary election. 

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Mail-in voting seems to have made an impact on voter turnout. During the 2020 election, 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot, in comparison to the 42% turnout in 2016. While Hawaii’s voter turnout was up in 2020, it was still lower than every state except Arkansas and Oklahoma, both of which have  extremely restrictive voting laws.

Concerns over voter turnout were renewed after the recent primary election. Only 40% of the state’s 853,800 registered voters cast a ballot in the Aug. 13 primary, according to the Office of Elections data. 

“It looks like we’re still going to do better than we did in (the 2018 midterm primary), but this just goes to show that moving to an all mail-in voting system is not a silver bullet to solve our larger problem of a lack of participation,” Colin Moore, a political analyst for Hawaii News Now, wrote. 

Moving to a mostly mail-in election, poses another problem. Hawaii has the second highest rate of people experiencing homelessness of any state. According to the Hawaii State Department of Human Resources, 41 out of every 10,000 Hawaiians are unhoused. 

Having no permanent address causes problems in registration and voting. Unhoused voters in Hawaii can list a landmark or other descriptor to indicate their voting district, but without a  permanent address, they can’t receive a mailed ballot.

Hawaiians are able to register and vote in person up to and on Election Day, and early voting is allowed up to 10 days before an election. However, for the 2022 elections there are only eleven in-person voting centers in the entire state, with no more than four locations on an island. Only 1.1% of voters cast a ballot in person in the recent primary election, according to the state’s Office of Elections

Voters experiencing homelessness could face long lines or have to commute a fair distance to access a voting center, potentially tens of miles depending on where they are on an island. In 2020, according to Hawaii News Now, some voters had to wait about an hour to cast their ballots. 

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest issues facing the state right now, as Hawaii was named the most expensive state to live in this year. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem, with wealthy mainlanders buying property on the island and taking away affordable housing from the Native population. 

While those most vulnerable might not be able to vote, many candidates up for election this fall have addressed homelessness in their campaigns. 

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who won the Democratic primary to succeed term-limited Ige as governor, has a 10-step plan for addressing the problem. It focuses on eliminating bureaucratic delays in new home construction and going after illegal vacation rentals that take away housing from native Hawaiians. 

“Our housing crisis will likely continue to be the most challenging issue we face in the coming years,” writes Green on his website. “Over the last 10 years in Hawaii, we have not done enough to keep the cost of housing affordable by meeting the demand for low-cost units designed for working families.” 

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Hayley Starshak

Hayley Starshak is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune...