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Absentee voting: the negatives greatly outweigh the positives

** Note: A shorter, easier to read summary of this essay was published in Hawaii Reporter online newspaper on August 21, 2012 at
and also on August 21, 2012 in Hawaii Political Info blog at

(c) August 19, 2012 by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D.

Hawaii voters are being herded like sheep to vote by mailed absentee ballots, and eventually to vote electronically through the internet. Holding elections that way would save a lot of money, produce immediate final results the moment the "polls" close, and be extremely convenient for voters. It might increase the dismal percentage of registered voters who actually vote.

But would abolishing election-day in-person voting be in the best interests of individual voters? Would it open the door to fraudulent vote-counting through electronic or procedural skullduggery at election headquarters or by outside hackers? Would it allow unethical politicians to "help" (i.e. intimidate) frail elderly voters or people whose English is poor, to mark their absentee ballots for them in their homes, while "walking the district"? According to Civil Beat, that's what Romy Cachola actually did in 2012. How about doing that for a group of people at a care home, assisted living facility, or nursing home?Would it allow labor unions or corporate executives to demand members or employees to fill in their absentee ballots at a group meeting in the union hall or company cafeteria under the watchful eye of a shop steward or boss?

Do-gooders think society should do everything possible to increase voter participation by making it easy and convenient to vote. But perhaps it's better to require people to go out of their way to vote. If someone has such little knowledge about the candidates, or cares so little about the election that he is unwilling to make the effort to go to the polling place on election day, then perhaps we're all better off if he does not vote. Low voter turnout is evidence that people can't find candidates they consider worthy of voting for. Personally, I don't mind if voter turnout is low, because that magnifies the effectiveness of my own vote. Ignorant or apathetic people are welcome to abstain.

The right to vote should be exercised by people who know how precious is the blood and treasure sacrificed to make it possible. The founders of our nation signed the Declaration of Independence right below its closing words "... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Surely we can show our respect by sacrificing a few minutes to go to the polling place on election day.


The public is being pushed to do mass, routine absentee voting

The Hawaii Office of Elections (OE), and our monopoly newspaper, are pushing us toward abolishing election-day in-person voting. For now we are being urged to vote absentee by mail; but eventually they want all votes to be cast electronically over the internet (with public access to computers for people who don't have them including help for people with handicaps).

After every election we are told that voter turnout is deplorable and we should be ashamed. We're told that voting is simply too time consuming and inconvenient for people, so the way to improve turnout is to make it easier for people to vote.

In Hawaii and throughout the U.S. it has become commonplace for anyone who wants an absentee ballot to be able to get one just for personal convenience, without needing proof of absence such as a plane ticket or doctor's excuse citing impending surgery. Since 2010 Hawaii people have been offered the even greater convenience to never again need to apply for an absentee ballot -- just mail a request one time for permanent absentee voting. Those who sign up will automatically be sent an absentee ballot for every election forever, until they fail to vote in both the primary and general election, or OE is notified they have registered in another state, or a notification card is returned to OE as undeliverable by the post office, or the voter asks to be removed from permanent absentee voting.

On August 15, in his first commentary after the primary election, Star-Advertiser columnist Jan TenBruggencate wrote that "Oregon and Washington do all-mail elections, and other states are considering them." But, to be honest, he noted that all-mail voting does not necessarily increase turnout in the places where it is used.

On August 17 columnist Richard Borreca described the biennial chaos at polling places and at the state capitol where votes are officially tallied; and he noted that all-mail voting is the way to save time and money. He concluded "The Honolulu clerk's office mailed out 102,350 absentee ballots. A total of 97,056 ballots were returned, meaning almost 95 percent of those who were mailed a ballot mailed it back. Of course that doesn't mean vote-by-mail would automatically make our voter turnout 95 percent, but there is nothing wrong with shedding our gothic past and crashing through to the 21st century."


Absentee voting is not allowed in the U.S. Senate or House. Think about why.

Anyone who watches the U.S. Senate or House on C-SPAN can see that absentee voting is not allowed for either a voice vote or a roll call vote. In the House, each of the 435 representatives can vote in a roll call only from his chair on the floor by pressing a button for "aye" or "nay" or "present (but abstain)." The votes are then tallied by a central computer and the running count is publicly displayed throughout the ten or twenty minutes set aside for voting, after which the result becomes final. In a Senate roll call vote, a period of time is allowed during which each Senator must approach the clerk's desk and be recognized by the clerk who speaks the Senator's name through a publicly audible microphone. The Senator then speaks the word "aye" or "nay" or "present", and the clerk then repeats both the Senator's name and his vote. That's very 19th Century, Richard Borreca!

Wouldn't it be much more convenient if a Representative or Senator didn't have to get on the little underground train from his office building to the Capitol building? Why can't he simply watch the proceedings on TV and cast his vote from the comfort of his office? Think how much time and inconvenience could be saved. Indeed, why should a Representative or Senator who is ill or perhaps hospitalized a thousand miles away not be allowed to vote from his home or bed? There have been extremely dramatic, courageous incidents when a Member of Congress knew his vote could be decisive and made a point of coming in person to cast his vote, because otherwise he would not be allowed to vote. On July 22, 2012 Nicole Debevec of United Press International recalled that "Rep. William Natcher, D-Ky., who served until his death in 1994, holds the record for the most consecutive roll-call votes: 18,401 over 41 years, until an illness broke the streak. Roll Call [publication] reported Natcher was wheeled onto the House floor on a hospital gurney to cast one of his final votes."

There must be very good reasons why the U.S. Congress refuses to allow absentee voting. Readers can easily figure out many of those reasons. Anytime someone suggests the Hawaii government should make elections happen entirely by absentee voting, we should demand to know why a Hawaii citizen's vote is less important than a vote by a Member of Congress. And anytime an individual voter considers whether to apply for an absentee ballot, he should think about the reasons why a Representative or Senator is required to cast every vote in person, sometimes at great inconvenience and even at the risk of losing his life to get to the "polling place."


Voters can miss important information about candidates when voting by mail.

In the "good old days" when absentee voting was rare and allowed only by presenting proof of impending absence, funeral, hospitalization or other good excuse, candidates knew how to schedule their campaign appearances, mailouts, and advertisements. But nowadays, when absentee ballots can be voted multiple weeks before election day, it's hard for candidates to plan their campaigns for maximum effectiveness. The voter who mails in his ballot early will miss a lot of information that might change his mind. Major debates are often scheduled close to election day. It's even possible that a candidate who dies shortly before election day could actually win the election! In Hawaii we have a Campaign Spending Commission which requires all candidates to file disclosures about who has contributed how many dollars, and those disclosures are available for the public to see on the internet and for news media to report. Thus we know whether a politician is beholden to special interests we disapprove of. But voting early prevents a voter from getting that information. Should candidates be required to file their disclosures in time for the mailout of absentee ballots? But then they will be able to hide large contributions that come close to election day.

Some voters who consider themselves good citizens say they like absentee voting because they get the ballot in the mail and then have time to do research about the candidates to help them make a good decision. But in fact, a good citizen can do the same research anyway, several days before going to the polling place. If a voter does not know the names of all the candidates for all the contests that will be on his particular ballot, he can find out by going to the Office of Elections website. Prominently displayed on the front page is a "Polling Place Locator" which allows a voter to use his own address to find out where is his polling place, and then on that same locator is a link to download a pdf photograph showing the actual ballot for that precinct with all the contests, candidate names, and referendum questions.


Mail-in ballots rejected for errors get no second chance

I have served as a precinct elections official in every election for nearly 20 years (except the general election of 2000 when I was a candidate for OHA and therefore not allowed to work in the general election). For the most recent several elections we have had voting machines which detect errors and immediately kick back a bad ballot along with a message helping the voter understand what's wrong. The voter can then get a new ballot and try again.

In the primary election of 2012 I spent nearly the whole time from 7 AM to 6 PM sitting at the voting machine helping voters insert their ballots and helping them understand why bad ballots got rejected. Perhaps ten percent of ballots got rejected.

The two most frequent reasons were failure to mark the box to choose a particular political party, or voting for candidates in a political party different from the one selected (For example, vote for both Linda Lingle [R] and Mazie Hirono [D] for Senate). Some voters simply didn't understand that the purpose of a primary election is for each party to choose who will be its candidate to run against the other parties' candidates in November. In a primary election a voter must pretend for that one day to be a loyal member of one political party -- the voter must first mark the ballot to identify which party that is, and then must vote only for candidates inside that particular party (plus the non-partisan county contests on the back side). A few voters also didn't realize that "non-partisan" is actually used as a party name on the front, and thought they could vote for a "non-partisan" candidate in addition to a Democrat or Republican etc. A few voters also voted for more than one candidate in the same contest (for example, both Tulsi Gabbard and Esther Kia'aina among the Democrat candidates for Second Congressional District).

The voting machine catches such errors and kicks back the ballot so the voter can get a replacement ballot and try again. But if an absentee ballot is mailed in, and has an error, the voter gets no second chance. A few voters get frustrated, angry, or disgusted when they make an error and don't want to get a replacement ballot. There is a button on the machine whereby a voter can tell the machine to accept the ballot despite the error. In that case, if the error affects only one contest, then the particular contest where the error occurred is ignored by the machine, but other contests get counted. What happens with mailed-in absentee ballots that have errors? The commonsense procedure would be for an elections official to push the button to accept the ballot despite the error, so that at least the contests without any error would get counted. But I don't know whether that's how the bureaucrats handle it. In any case, the absentee voter loses out on the opportunity he would have had at the polling place to get a replacement ballot to correct whatever error he made. It would be interesting to find out how many such errors there were among the absentee ballots, and whether the number of errors in any particular contest was larger than the margin of victory and thus could have changed the outcome of the election. But in the week after the election, with the massive confusion on Hawaii Island, the Office of Elections is too busy to do that research or answer such questions.


Absentee voting by mail, or electronic voting by internet, makes it easy for large numbers of voters to sell their votes; or for candidates, union stewards, or corporate bosses to intimidate voters in large numbers.

In the "good old days" of in-person voting, a voter could take money and sell his vote, but could nevertheless vote for whichever candidate he wanted, because the ballot was marked in the privacy and secrecy of the voting booth. However, if a voter takes possession of an absentee ballot to be returned by mail, then someone else who buys that vote or intimidates that voter can actually watch the voter mark the ballot; can watch to be sure the ballot gets enclosed inside the official envelope and the envelope gets signed by the voter; and then can mail the envelope for the voter to be sure it gets sent in. Thus the buyer or intimidator can be absolutely certain that the vote has been cast the way the buyer or intimidator wants.

The way for a buyer or intimidator to control large numbers of votes is to demand that people apply for and receive absentee ballots to be returned by mail. Since the period for absentee voting lasts several weeks, there's plenty of time for one buyer or intimidator to control hundreds of votes. Here are a few obvious ways to do that. A candidate who "walks his district" can use the telephone to line up voters to get absentee ballots and then make appointments; and then visit each of them at home to watch them mark the ballots, seal them in the outer mailing envelope and sign the envelope; and then take the envelopes to the post office. A union steward or company boss can instruct large numbers of workers to get absentee ballots, and then organize a meeting where everyone comes to fill out the ballots and sign the envelopes together. A candidate could also do the same thing at an assisted living facility, care home, nursing home, or hospital; meeting with a large number of absentee voters who might have painful or debilitating illnesses that distract them from paying attention; or diminished mental capacity.

These doomsday scenarios are not merely speculative. Romy Cachola was a member of Honolulu City Council. Term limits forced him out of office in 2012. He ran in the primary election on August 11, 2012 for the state House of Representatives, against first-time candidate Nicole Velasco. There are both voter narratives and statistical evidence proving that Cachola stole the election by using voter intimidation with absentee ballots. Chad Blair published articles describing what happened in Civil Beat online newspaper, on August 16
and August 17

Chad Blair reported "Cachola won 51 percent to 46 percent. ... But if only Election Day and early walk-in votes had been counted, Velasco would have won in a landslide, 60 percent to 36 percent. ... According to a Civil Beat analysis, more than 70 percent of those who voted for Cachola in the Democratic primary against Velasco did so via a mail-in ballot. That was by far the highest percentage in Hawaii. ... In all, 41 percent of votes cast were mail-in votes, placing Cachola's 70 percent figure in even sharper contrast. ... Civil Beat granted anonymity to a Filipino family in District 30 who says Cachola forced the grandmother of the house to complete an absentee ballot as he watched. ... "And he just like forced me to do the voting in front of him, and I did not want to. I told him, 'I have to go, I know what to do.' So I stopped what I did, then he looked at his name. I scratched it, and he watched me do it all the way until I finished." The woman said Cachola then told her to put the ballot in the state Elections Office envelope, to seal it and then give it to him to mail. He then left the house with the ballot in hand. ... The family, who supported Velasco and sign-waved on her behalf, said they told Velasco about what happened. ... There was a similar voting pattern when Cachola first ran for the City Council in 2000. In a primary election race, he won 46 percent to 43 percent over his closest competitor, Dennis Nakasato. Among mail-in absentee voters, Cachola secured 59 percent of the vote. Among those who voted in person — either on Election Day or before it — he got only 43 percent of the vote. ..."


Absentee voting by mail, or electronic voting by internet, makes it more likely that imposters will vote for dead people or for lazy neighbors, or that some people might vote twice (once absentee and again in person).

A commonly heard joke about political corruption in Chicago is that politicians tell their supporters "Vote early -- and often!" Another joke about Chicago is that lots of dead people vote. But that's no joke.

Can dead people vote in Hawaii? The answer is: Yes, definitely, some of them can. The only questions not yet answered are: How many dead people were still listed in the pollbooks and could have voted in Hawaii's primary and general elections in recent years? How many dead people actually did vote in those elections? To answer those questions would require in-depth work by an investigative reporter with lots of time and great persistence to break through bureaucratic stonewalling and buck-passing at several state and county government agencies.

I, Ken Conklin, wrote a detailed report describing a limited investigation I conducted as a low-level election official at just one precinct in Kane'ohe in the primary and general elections of 2010 (He'eia Elementary School, Precinct 48-01 that year but now renumbered to 49-01 following reapportionment).

My most shocking discovery was that at least one dead person remained listed in the pollbook on the primary election date of September 18, 2010 and therefore anyone claiming to be that person could have received a ballot and voted. The requirement to show identification when receiving a ballot is so vague and loosely enforced that any family member, neighbor, co-worker, friend, or even stranger could successfully get a ballot in the name of a registered voter merely by bringing a current utility bill with the voter's name and address on it, or by reciting the voter's name, address, and birthdate (month and day but not year). In this particular case, the dead person's name was published in a newspaper obituary, and the name and home address were listed in the phone book; so it would be easy for anyone to obtain enough information to get this person's ballot.

The dead person listed in the pollbook for the primary election was removed and no longer present for the general election. But it's not clear whether the name was removed through routine bureaucratic procedures (which, of course, would be a good thing) or whether it was removed because a fellow precinct official might have informed the Office of Elections about my discovery (see the webpage for the story about attempts by the bureaucracy to stifle my little investigation). I also don't know whether any imposter actually voted on behalf of the dead person, because halfway through the day the bureaucracy deprived me of access to the pollbook (where the fact is recorded that someone has voted).

In the general election, there was another dead person listed in the pollbook (who was probably also in the pollbook for the primary election although at that time the person was still alive and therefore did not attract my attention). This name had an "AB" preprinted next to it, which meant that an absentee ballot for the general election (and probably also the primary) had been mailed to the voter. Another person of the opposite gender and same last name, at the same address (probably the spouse) was also listed with a preprinted AB. The AB is in the pollbook to warn precinct officials not to give the person a ballot on election day, because the person has already been sent a ballot in the mail or might have done in-person early voting.

In this case the date of death of the 80-year-old was October 3 as shown in an obituary published later. October 3 was long after applications for absentee ballots could have been sent by voters to the Office of Elections, and was a week before the date when OE mailed out the ballots for the general election. So there's no indication of fraud (or absence of fraud!) in this case. But was OE notified of the death in time to stop OE from mailing the ballot, even after preprinting the AB in the pollbook? Or was the ballot mailed out? And if it was mailed, was it actually voted fraudulently after death (perhaps by a family member) and then mailed back to OE?

The dead person's name and address are listed in the phone book, so I could have made a phone call to the surviving spouse to ask those questions. But I chose not to do so out of respect for the grieving family. Those questions could be answered by an investigative reporter, perhaps with a subpoena to force OE to disclose the information. There is a space at the bottom of the application for absentee ballot where OE writes down the ballot stub number, date, and name of the OE clerk both when OE mails out a ballot and when the voted ballot is received back by OE. Instructions and application for absentee ballot can be downloaded from OE here:

I positively identified only one dead person in one pollbook, who could have had an imposter walk in to the precinct, gotten a ballot, and voted. I also identified one dead person who could have gotten an absentee ballot after dying which could have been voted by a family member or imposter. Perhaps it seems unworthy to give attention to one very bad case, and another case that might or might not be bad.

But there were probably quite a few more cases I did not discover at my precinct. There are many reasons why my small investigation was incomplete. Due to bureaucratic stonewalling (described in the webpage report cited earlier), I was not able to get a list of the dead people who had allegedly been removed from the voter list; so I was forced to use newspaper obituaries as my sole source of names. But there are dead people for whom no obituary is published. Also, I began keeping track of obituaries only about 6 weeks before the primary election; but there could have been people who died months or even years before that who were still on the list of voters. Also, obituaries are sometimes not published until several weeks after death, so there could be several people who died shortly before election day about whom I had no information -- indeed, those are the dead people most likely to still be in the pollbooks because of bureaucratic slowness.

It's quite possible that there could be dozens of dead voters whose names remain in the pollbooks on election day in every precinct. There were 242 precincts in the State of Hawaii for 2010; so if my two or ten bad cases at my single precinct are typical, that's about 500 or 2500 potential fraudulent votes. Of course that's not likely, but the possibility is alarming. Even if no dead people actually vote, the fact that even one dead person remained in the pollbook on election day displays the proverbial "tip of the iceberg" -- there are serious glitches in the bureaucratic process of the Office of Elections which might allow actual voter fraud to happen. Mathematicians and scientists know that even a single piece of evidence that contradicts a formula or hypothesis can disclose a serious flaw.

My little research project from 2010 proves that there is no system now in place which works correctly all the time to eliminate dead people from the pollbooks or absentee voting list. Tens of thousands of absentee ballots are already mailed for a single year to people who applied during that year for either or both the primary and general election, and some of them will die while the unmarked ballots are still in their possession. Tens of thousands of additional voters are signing up to permanently receive absentee ballots without applying again for each new election cycle, making it increasingly likely that dead people will receive ballots.

Absentee voting by mail obviously has far more opportunity for fraud than in-person voting -- ballots can be stolen, sold, or given away; election officials working in back rooms unseen by the public might "lose" votes they don't like; etc.

In the primary election of 2010, all the media carried news reports about massive problems on Hawaii Island caused by a completely inexperienced new chief clerk whose bungling, inadequate planning, inadequate delegation of authority and failure to properly supervise, resulted in numerous precincts opening as much as 90 minutes late, not having appropriate supplies, having unsealed packets of ballots, etc. The situation was so chaotic, with numerous voters not voting because the precincts opened late, that one candidate for state House might have filed a demand for recount and perhaps a do-over of the election for her contest after losing the election by a few dozen votes.

One very interesting incident in the chaos on Hawaii Island was a report by several precinct election officials that they had voted by absentee ballot but there was no mark in the pollbook to indicate they had done so; thus, they could have voted again in person on election day.

Describing the severity of this problem requires some explaining. All polling place workers are required to attend a training program during a period of a couple months before primary election day (dozens of these training programs are offered in numerous geographic areas, and poll workers register for them ahead of time by phone or internet). At the training program workers are strongly encouraged to fill out a request for absentee ballot because they will not be allowed to leave the polling place where they work to go to a different polling place where they are registered to vote. On the other hand, many pollworkers know they are assigned to the precinct where they vote, so they might choose to vote in person on election day during a break.

Pollbooks containing the names and addresses of all registered voters are printed near the end of the voter registration period. At that time, every voter who has been given an absentee ballot gets the designation "AB" printed in the pollbook by his name.

Between 5:30 AM and 7:00 AM on election day poll workers must be at the polling place to set up the supplies and equipment. A major task during that time is to make corrections to the pollbook from "Corrections Order #1" containing a list of hundreds of voters who were given absentee ballots after the pollbooks were printed, or who have questionable addresses or whose names should be added to or deleted from the pollbook, etc. Thus all persons who received an absentee ballot will have the notation "AB" next to their name in the pollbook, either preprinted or else added by hand from CO#1.

When handing out ballots on election day, a pollworker requires the voter to identify himself and sign the pollbook, at which time, if there's an "AB" by that name, the pollworker knows that voter should not be given another ballot. However, several poll workers in at least one precinct, who were registered to vote at that precinct and had received and voted absentee ballots days or weeks before election day, noticed that there was no "AB" next to their own names in the pollbooks. Thus if they were dishonest they could have voted again by getting a ballot at their polling place on election day, and nobody would ever know they had voted twice.


Here’s a semi-humorous and semi-serious proposal to get rid of lots of bureaucrats, and to avoid the hassles of voter registration, same-day registration, absentee voting, early voting, requiring voter ID, etc. It's called "inky pinky." They use it in third-world nations. Remember seeing voters in Iraq in 2005 proudly holding up their purple fingers (no, not the middle finger!)as proof they had voted, or in Egypt in May 2012? A voter goes to the polling place on election day, marks his ballot and puts it in the box; and then sticks his finger into a bowl of permanent purple ink which stains his finger and will not wear off or wash off for more than a day. Gotta be alive and show up in person to vote. Each person gets exactly one vote. Brave women and men in Iraq walked long distances and waited in line for hours to vote, always fearing they might be attacked by Shiite terrorists opposed to holding any election. Meanwhile here in Hawaii we have crybabies who can't be bothered to spend a few minutes going on safe streets to the nearby polling place on election day.

A news report in The Guardian (Britain) of May 23, 2012 includes a photo of "the leftist Hamdeen Sabahy showing off his inky pinky after voting in Cairo."

Another photo from The Scotsman of January 31, 2005 shows a woman proudly displaying her inky pinky after voting in Iraq.


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