Hawaii Elections Officials Try to Get to the Bottom of Elections Day ‘Chaos’

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Elections 2012
Graphic: Emily Metcalf

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN– County election officials in all four counties will meet today with Office of Elections officials to review problems they encountered during Saturday’s Primary Election. They are hoping to make adjustments by the November 6 General Election.

State officials will attempt to learn from Big Island County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi exactly what happened on Saturday that led to “chaos” and as many as 25 polling places opening late.


At first, state elections officials heard there were three polling places of 40 that did not open on time, but by midday that number increased to 11 and then to 25.

‪Rex Quidilla, spokesman for the State office of elections, said they learned about the delays from Oahu reporters who received press releases from Kawauchi.

The Big Island County Clerk, who was hired in December 2010 and had never run an election, did not return calls to elections officials or provide information to Big Island media.

“The County Clerk has not communicated evenly nor openly with the media about any aspect of Hawaii County Elections, for weeks.  And when one speaks with her, even in a press conference with multiple reporters, she goes in circles around questions, even very direct ones,” one Big Island reporter told Hawaii Reporter.

In an August 11 open letter to Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi; her administrative assistant, Sharon Takata; Kathy Garson, the deputy Corporation Counsel attorney for the Elections Division; state Office of Elections staff, the Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News said they were “not on the media distribution list for the press releases, such as the one below coming out of the Hawaii County Clerk’s Office.”

The media organizations wrote: “Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News representatives sat outside the County Building from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. waiting for Jamae to address us, after she scheduled an appointment with us to view delivery and collection procedures. Jamae never came out to address us in that two-hour period we sat waiting outside. 
Another Big Island Chronicle reporter showed up at 9 a.m. this morning for an appointment, only to be turned away by security guards. … Big Island Chronicle has filled out Jamae’s media form and yet Jamae has opted not to update Big Island Chronicle today. This is curious and alarming, the selective distribution of communication.”

The delays and lack of communication also led to several complaints from candidates who said their races may have been impacted.

Andy Smith, a Republican who helped coordinate poll watchers in virtually all of the Big Island polling locations, said the volunteer workers were “wonderful” and the problems, which ranged from no paper ballots or blue privacy shields on site, to no electronic voting machines, were not their fault.

He said poll workers were not trained properly, and in some cases, told voters to leave polling places if they could not find their name in the voting rolls. What should have happened, Smith said, is they should have been allowed to vote and put on the failed safe list. In addition, poll workers and watchers who had already voted by absentee noticed their names did not have an “AB” listed next to them as they should have to prevent absentee voters from voting twices – once by mail and once in the polls.

Smith said he was not surprised there was “chaos” that morning because there were many problems leading up to the elections within the county clerk office that did not bode well for the August 11 primary election.

The Big Island media noted two full-time election staffers of five employed in the Hawaii County elections office took sick leave during the week leading up to the Primary Election, calling the office “dysfunctional.” Another temporary employee resigned Wednesday, the island media reported.

Smith was critical of the county clerk’s office saying the department has just one job and plenty of time to prepare and should have gotten it right.

Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, contacted Gov. Neil Abercrombie about the problems, and asked him to take action.

Ultimately Abercrombie used his emergency powers to issue a declaration to extended the closing time at the polls by another hour and half, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

But that did not appease the candidates in close races.

“There was a great deal at stake. People were very concerned,” Smith said.

Former Big Island Mayor and state Senator Lorraine Inouye lost her primary election to incumbent Malama Solomon by just 69 votes of 8,000 votes cast.

Kalei Akaka, a candidate for House District 6, also is considering a challenge, as she lost by 45 votes out of 3,200 cast.

Were the elections of Inouye and Akaka impacted?

“It’s impossible to actually tell,” said one Big Island reporter. “The only way our state has set up for a challenge is via a challenge through the Supreme Court… State Elections does a double count on election night, and it looks like our state has no provision for a recount.  But (Inouye’s) issue is more who was turned away…unless they call her, she won’t ever know that….  It’s probably not a recount issue as much as a ‘who didn’t get to vote’ issue, hard to prove.”

In addition to elections officials meeting today, the Big Island County Council, which appointed the county clerk, will hold an informational briefing to learn more about what happened on their island on Primary Election day and what the consequences will be.