Voting mishaps: isolated flukes or systemic flaws?

2012 ballot from the State of Hawaii (photo by Lucy Martin)

I have voted. At least I think so.

Sometimes it’s hard to be sure. And that’s not good.

Lots of Americans live abroad. It’s difficult to know exactly what that figure is, and not all of those Americans abroad are eligible to vote (such as children under 18). But by some estimates there are close to one million potential U.S. voters in Canada alone.

Those who have not yet registered for November’s contest may have waited too long to participate this time around. But the process is fairly simple, as explained at the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) or

American citizens whose legal residence is outside the U.S. remain eligible to vote in federal elections. Those offices would be: president, senate and house races for the state/district of their last official residency in the U.S.

That process has gone very well for me across more than a decade of living in the Ottawa region. Until this year, that is. Apparently, I’m not the only one experiencing problems. When it comes to voting, my home state of Hawaii has been making the wrong sort of headlines.

The U.S. election process is generally left to state and local officials. In Hawaii much of the basic work is managed on the county level. According to Wikipedia, as of 2007 there were 3,033 counties or county equivalents (like parishes) in the U.S. I doubt each and every one runs its own election process. But it’s probably fair to say the system includes considerable variability.

What has gone amiss in Hawaii? Oh my, where to start? How about with the primary election of August 11th where polling stations on the Big Island of Hawaii were impacted by a noticeable outbreak of “blue-flu”. As reported by the Associated Press, enough election staff called in sick that some polling locations had to open late. Governor Neil Abercrombie ordered that Big Island polling stations stay open an additional 90 minutes to help remedy the situation.

The Hawaii County Clerk in charge of elections on the Big Island, Jamae Kawauchi, issued a report about primary mishaps, in which she casts some blame on the State Office of Elections. The finger pointing is sufficiently messy that the State of Hawaii Office of Elections will step in and run the general elections on that island this November.

Moving next to the island of Oahu, the City and County of Honolulu. In Manoa Valley 817 absentee voters received double ballots due to a printing error. As reported by KHON2, apologetic officials are mailing those voters yet a third ballot, and asking them to use it. (Any duplicate votes in that situation are to be siphoned off inside the system.)

I vote in the City and County of Honolulu jurisdiction. Due to a mix-up, I got the absentee ballot with the full slate of local and federal offices. I requested and received a federal-only ballot. I am fairly confident that will arrive in time to be counted. (Mail from Ottawa to Hawaii can take anywhere from a week to 10 days.) Meanwhile, another voter I know chose to vote by email. The email ballot this person received explicitly stated there was no senate contest in Hawaii this year. In fact, there’s an important senate race between former Republican Governor Linda Lingle and current Democratic Congresswoman Mazie Hirono. I’d call that a serious ballot error, especially with the whole country being quite interested in which party will control the senate.

In the not-as-serious-but-still-incorrect department, just this week Big Island paper West Hawaii Today is reporting that:

More than one-half million Hawaii ballots were printed with the presidential candidates in no particular order, despite a state law that says all candidates must be in alphabetical order within their respective races.

This may be manini, as folks say in Hawaii (small potatoes, pretty minor). After all, the names are there, just not in the correct order. But when ballots are not done correctly, critics or losing parties have a legal basis to challenge the results. And that’s not manini.

Hawaii got national exposure of dubious distinction when CNN did some in-depth reporting on voter turn out. John Sutter’s article “Hawaii: the state that doesn’t vote” (and the accompanying video) strikes me as a decent effort at explaining something that’s not very flattering.

It didn’t used to be that way. In elementary school my teachers were proud to teach that Hawaii had one of the best voter turn-outs in the nation. Civic pride ran strong in older generations there, as demonstrated by this widely-reprinted AP story of WWII veteran Frank Tanabe making sure he voted before he died.

You’d think that would be the whole story: a noble life marked by patriotic devotion. But no, even death makes elections twist in odd ways. Hawaii law states that votes cast by citizens who die before election day shall not be counted. Except if the death has not been officially recorded by the Department of Health. In that case, the vote may be counted. As NPR reports, it sort of depends.

I’m not trying to pick on Hawaii. (Though 2012 does not appear to be that state’s shining hour of election excellence.)

No, my question is this: is it time to create stronger standards for elections, or to centralize the structure and supervision of voting? I see pros and cons either way. But – whoever is in charge – I’d argue that voting shouldn’t be this squirrelly.

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9 Comments on “Voting mishaps: isolated flukes or systemic flaws?”

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  1. Larry says:

    In this day and age, all voting should be done electronically, either at local polling places or, for those who cannot attend in person, via the internet. The technology (for efficiency and security) is available; we should use it. What system could be less efficient and less secure than elderly people counting pieces of paper?

  2. There should be at least a common standard that should include a paper ballot. Canada’s system of scanning paper ballots works and at least some areas of NY use the same sort of system. That’s how I voted last time but I’ve moved so it remains to be seen how it works at my new voting place. A paper ballot is a necessity IMO (even if counted by those elderly people Larry dislikes) as a guarantee against manipulations of an electronic vote. Without the paper backup, a “recount” consists of nothing more than reading the total a second time.

  3. Walker says:

    “What system could be less efficient and less secure than elderly people counting pieces of paper?”

    One in which each vote leaves no discernible trace, and which can be hacked, i.e., a purely electronic system.

  4. mervel says:

    I totally agree.

    The bottom line is that the US does not administer elections very well. To me the voting process needs to be standardized across the states. I think you would see state’s rights advocates arguing against this to some degree, but the federal government already interjects in state voting through things like the Voting Rights Act etc. It would seem that if we can’t count votes or have no confidence in a rickety system that does not count votes accurately this would be a voting rights issue.

    Of course this would take money.

  5. oa says:

    Acorn did it.

  6. mervel says:


    Incompetency usually trumps conspiracy.

  7. Josh says:

    I have had pretty good luck with the St Lawrence county board of elections. I (in the UK) received my ballot in good time before the election, and sent it last week. Well done them– they’ve served me well every time.

  8. Larry: a lot of people have concerns about electronic voting. Some have concerns about making fraud much more easy to do and harder to detect because of the lack of a paper trail. But the bigger concern some have is that anyone who spends a lot of time on a computer knows how often they crash. Does this latter point not concern you?

  9. But Larry’s point is worth exploring. I’m not sure I’m confident yet but I think electronic voting is something we should be working toward. We need to work to make it safe and reliable and trustworthy. We can pay our taxes electronically. Why shouldn’t we be able to vote that way?

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