HONOLULU — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, was declared the winner of the Democratic primary Friday in a hard-fought political battle that divided the party by race, loyalties and tradition.
Schatz, appointed to the Senate seat by Gov. Neil Abercrombie after U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye died in 2012, beat out his challenger, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, by less than 1 percent of the vote. Schatz received 1,769 more votes than Hanabusa, or 115,401 votes to Hanabusa’s 113,632.
Polls showed that Caucasians, and many mainland liberal groups, largely backed Schatz, while Hanabusa had the support of local Asians. On his deathbed, Inouye sent a letter requesting Abercrombie put Hanabusa in his seat, but the governor instead picked Schatz, riling the Inouye faction within the party.
Adding to the drama, elections officials admitted Friday they had discovered 800 ballots on the island of Maui that had not been counted in the Aug. 9 primary, which they added to Friday’s special election count.
The election would have wrapped up Aug. 9, but voting was delayed on Hawaii Island after Tropical Storm Iselle hit the island, knocking out power to 8,100 people and disrupting water service.
Conditions were poor enough that the Office of Elections closed two polling places in Puna because of the power and access issues and called for the special election.
At the end of the Aug. 9 vote, Schatz led Hanabusa by just 1,635 votes, but 6,800 of Puna’s 8,000 registered voters had not cast ballots, so the race was too close to call.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, said additional polling locations should have been closed as well, because voters couldn’t leave their homes to vote, leading to voter turnout as low as 11.5 percent in that district. Office of Elections statistics showed 37.5 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot in Hawaii County.
The Office of Elections initially said it would delay the special election for two to three weeks (state law allows up to 21 days), so voters could dig their way out of the storm. But officials then decided to push ahead with the election on Friday, Hawaii’s Statehood Day.
Hanabusa asked Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago not to rush the election, and noted the damage from this natural disaster wasn’t isolated to the two precincts in House District 4 that were closed Aug. 9. She said some voters in the other two precincts couldn’t reach the polls.
“Local roads to and from their homes, miles away from the precincts, were inaccessible,” Hanabusa wrote in an Aug. 12 letter. “The issue is nonpartisan.”
She asked officials to delay the election. “With blocked roads, widespread damage, and limited means of communication, there is no practical manner to ensure that all residents will receive adequate notice of the announced election…or be able to access the precincts on that day,” Hanabusa wrote. “I ask that you not rush for the sake of convenience.
She also asked, to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest, the Office of Elections seek independent legal counsel apart from Attorney General David Louie, “who was witnessed in person on election night at the campaign headquarters of U.S. Senator Brian Schatz.”
When Nago didn’t respond favorably, Hanabusa filed a lawsuit in Hawaii Island’s Third District Court on Wednesday requesting a temporary restraining order against the Office of Elections. After an emergency hearing, the Hawaii Island judge denied Hanabusa’s motion and the special election was held.
Ruderman said the plan to hold it Friday was a “terrible decision,” because many people “had not dug out yet” and couldn’t get newspapers, mail, electricity, Internet or mail.
“It is not possible that they will know to vote,” Ruderman said.
Ruderman said he tried several times to speak with Nago, but he didn’t return his calls until late Monday, after the office already decided to hold the special election.
“He (Nago) made a decision sitting in his office in Honolulu, based on bad information and bad assumptions,” Ruderman said.
Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said elections staff consulted with, among others, the Hawaii County Clerk and the attorney general. He said voters were sent brochures, letters and fliers to tell them of the coming elections, and children were sent home from school with informational fliers for their parents.
Leading up to the special election, Schatz and Hanabusa and their ground troops descended on the Puna neighborhoods, trying to attract the attention of those 6,800 registered voters yet to cast a ballot.
They helped feed and distribute water to the thousands of people without power and running water.
The final total votes cast in Puna was far below what the candidates had hoped.
Out of 6,782 registered Puna voters who could have cast a ballot, just another 1,500 made it to the polls.
Schatz will now take on Republican Cam Cavasso, a former state legislator, in the November General Election.
Cavasso, a small-business owner and social conservative, has unsuccessfully run twice for that U.S. Senate seat.