After complaints since August 6, 2012, when the Hawaii County Clerk made the sudden decision to remove full-time staffing from the Kona Elections Office at West Hawaii Civic Center, there is finally, as of September 18, a sign on the door stating that the office is sometimes not staffed.
The issue came to a head after Deputy Clerk Steve Lopez sent an email to several lower-level County employees working at West Hawaii Civic Center, “thanking them” for agreeing to handle elections inquiries that came into the office when it’s unstaffed. The problem was, none of them had agreed, the County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi had not followed normal protocol by asking their Directors if they and their employees could handle the task, and none of the other employees had any training in elections procedures or voter registration procedures.
Two offices had been getting the brunt of the public complaints about lack of staffing in the Elections Office, and had attempted to assist. The Hawaii County Mayor’s Office is on the second floor, not far from the Elections Office, and they had kept a supply of Voter Registration Forms and Absentee Ballot requests, but employees there had received no formal training. County Deputy Managing Director confirmed that they had not received a request to assist County Elections, and had done their best to help–but without training they weren’t able to give the best service to the public. He said they usually refer the public back to County Elections to make sure they got absolutely correct answers.
The County Housing Office shares a door with the Kona Elections Office, which actually is in front of the Housing Office. So the Housing employees, of whom there are only three in the Kona office, would hear the door open…and when nobody came over to the Housing Office, they would generally get up to find people standing at the Elections Counter, waiting in vain. Annie Bailey, Private Secretary to Housing Director Steve Arnette, would most often be the person trying to help. Bailey says she was willing, but she did not have many of the answers to potential voters’ questions. And she says the community members were not especially happy to be told they would have to call the Hilo Elections Office.
Carl Brown of Kailua-Kona said he was trying to update his voter registration. He spends part of the time out of the country and he wanted to make sure he would be able to vote. Bailey helped him by providing the registration forms and the absentee ballot applications, but did not have all the nuances to questions he was asking. When she suggested he call Hilo Elections, he said, “I’m here now, I came all the way up here, and I want to get answers now.” Bailey referred him to the County Council Office, on the first floor in the West Hawaii Civic Center, as she felt the Council Services staff might be able to provide more information. But Bailey says the situation frustrates her–she really wants to help people and give great customer service, and does the best she can given she has had no training in the subject and has not been assigned the responsibility to handle elections inquiries.
The League of Women Voters had started doing periodic checks of the Kona office, often finding it empty, with no signs giving the public any direction, says League co-president Sue Dursin. And Andy Smith, Director of the West Hawaii Republican Party, says that numerous times he’d taken Voter Registration forms or Absentee Ballot forms into the office and found nobody there. He would leave the forms in a small box provided at the office, but said he never felt comfortable about what would happen next. And several community members say they’ve been to the office with Voter Registration Forms or Absentee Ballot requests–some of which they just left lying on the counter. But nobody feels comfortable that their registration has been received.
The situation has now been exacerbated with the County Clerk’s decision to not send the new voter registrations to the printing contractor on Oahu by September 14, as did all the other Counties, for printing and mailing the yellow cards that confirm a voter’s registration. Until Kawauchi takes that step, the 4500 people (so far) who have registered or changed some information since the Primary will not have confirmation.
The situation came to a head two weeks ago with County Housing Director Steve Arnett sent an email to County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi after Lopez had emailed several employees about the lack of staffing for the West Hawaii Civic Center Elections Office, assuming they would fill in. He told Kawauchi they get up to 8 election walk-ins a day, and because his office shares the door with County Elections, they generally are the ones to get up from their desks and go to the Elections Office and attempt to help–or turn the public away, referring them to the Hilo Elections Office or the County Council Office. But he said it was not a good “customer service” approach.
After ten days, he had received no formal response from Kawauchi. Earlier this week, she said she had never received Arnett’s email (although other employees to whom it was copied did receive it). Now, at least there is a sign on the door so the public is not completely in the dark.