A Record Turnout for Hawai‘i’s First All By-Mail Ballot Serves Up an Exciting, Sleep-Deprived (Yet Satisfying) Good Time

Watching the watchers.
elections in hawaii
Elections observers in bright orange shirts review duplication of damaged ballots and each step of the state elections process at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.
Photo: Robbie Dingeman


Think of it as Primary Election Confidential: coffee stains, faint bar codes, invective scrawled by voters between the candidate names, about a hundred people scrambling to get their ballots in the drop boxes at Honolulu Hale in the last 30 minutes before deadline.


It’s all part of the job for an official observer for the state Office of Elections. As a political junkie reporter who’s been poring over election results and peppering state officials with questions for more than 30 years, an invitation to serve as one proved irresistible. State law requires observers to serve as “the eyes and ears of the general public.” Prior to an election, that translates into filling out sample ballots to test equipment—partly by voting every way possible to see what happens—and then during the actual election, to witness the collecting, opening, securing and counting of votes, while at the same time keeping an eye on safeguards that most of us never consider when we fill out our ballots. Officials ask representatives of each political party to serve as observers, along with members of such groups as the League of Women Voters and the media (that’s why I got invited), as well as volunteers who’ve served for years and folks who express interest. This year, 15 elections staffers worked with 56 observers of various ages, all easily identified by bright electric-orange shirts that were our uniform election week. Observers come from diverse backgrounds and life stages, with retirees amply represented. And while the election night mood at the Hawai‘i Convention Center was friendly, the observers were vigilant about watching over the process. Officials and observers chatted about jobs, food and workout routines in between batches of arriving ballots. As the time neared for counting to begin, anticipation built.


There was a lot to do, too. For example, when a voter uses a pen with pink ink instead of the required blue or black to mark their ballot, smears mustard or spills coffee on it, or a printing error alters the bar code, a ballot rips, a voter doesn’t fill out the political party on the primary ballot as required but fills in choices solely from within a single party, state officials don’t throw away the ballot. Once a scanner kicks out the suspect ones, staff and observers review each and create a duplicate ballot. One person fills out a copy by hand, while another watches to ensure there are no further mistakes or stains. Asked about the detailed and time-consuming practice, elections official Auli‘i Tenn says simply: “We don’t like to invalidate ballots.”


It’s not just about fixing voter mistakes. When an elections observer worried that ballots could get stuck in the new yellow secrecy sleeves, introduced for the first all mail-in election, state officials pulled all the bags of discarded sleeves to check them. Sure enough, ballots had stuck to some of the envelopes and were returned to be counted.


Chief election officer Scott Nago credits the volunteers for spending many hours and some sleepless nights to ensure a clean and accurate election. Some of them have been observing Hawai‘i elections for more than the 22 years that Nago has been with the elections office. “They don’t have to be here and they take a lot of pride in their work,” Nago says. Even as a rookie, I see why. I’ll join them again for the general election.


  • For the primary election, more than 407,190 people voted, 51.2% of registered voters, crushing the 2010 record of 293,016 ballots cast.

  • On O‘ahu, more than 48,000 people dropped their ballots in eight special boxes across the island rather than mail them.

  • On the Aug. 8 primary election day alone, Honolulu City Clerk Glen Takahashi says 17,723 ballots were dropped off by the 7 p.m. deadline.

  • Official elections observers receive a stipend of $95 per election plus $35& for each shift worked.

Sources: State Office of Elections, Honolulu City Clerk.


Read more stories By Robbie Dingeman