State Elections Office spokesman Rex Quidilla said Tuesday that rescinding Hawaii County’s authority to handle State elections functions was not an easy decision. But County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi refused to cooperate and communicate with the State and tell them what steps she was putting in place to avoid the problems that occurred on Primary Day.
Quidilla said Scott Nago, State Elections Chief, told Kawauchi in advance of the public announcement that this was the only way for the State to proceed to ensure a good election on November 6. Nago on Tuesday announced they have an office in the State Office Building in Hilo that will become the Election Control Center on November 6. Lori Tomczyk from the State Office of Elections will manage operations there.
Nago gave Kawauchi a detailed five-page letter telling her what they expect. Hawaii County will still handle voter registrations and absentee ballots. The State will handle supply delivery to the polling places, all election day phone calls, and counting of all ballots, including absentee ballots. These jobs have traditionally have been delegated to the Counties of Maui, Kaua’i, and Hawaii because of geographic issues. On Oahu, the State handles those same responsibilities and the City and County of Honolulu handles voter registration and absentee ballots. So the State has had experience in handling those matters.
Quidilla said the State already is responsible for paying Hawaii County’s 600 plus “volunteers,” those precinct officials and Election Day workers who make $85 to $100 per day. The State has asked Kawauchi for the list of volunteers. One of the many complaints of precinct officials on Primary Day is that they did not receive their list of volunteers enough time in advance to set up the usual briefings, and some volunteers who had been longtime volunteers never got contacted by the County at all. Quidilla said Hawaii County has longtime, dedicated volunteers, and that’s the reason the State believes they can conduct a successful election on November 6–because of the great experience and commitment those volunteer bring.
Other Primary Day failures included 13 polls that opened late. Most opened almost on time, but three in West Hawaii opened 90 minutes late. Voters were turned away. Because of numerous complaints, State Senator Josh Green (D-West Hawaii) personally appealed to the Attorney General and Governor Neil Abercrombie to leave polls open an additional 90 minutes. The Governor agreed. Because Hawaii County polls were open late, the rest of the State’s election results were delayed. And there was little assurance that those voters who had been turned away in the morning were able to return, especially because the County Clerk did not issue a press release announcing the late closure until 4:30 p.m. on Primary Day, even though the Governor made his declaration at 2:30 p.m.
Quidilla said the announcement was made now because the State needs adequate time to prepare and to contact all the volunteers. But Kawauchi may have forced the State’s hand. Last week, she announced to Hawaii Tribune-Herald reporter Tom Callis that she intended to start sending out the election supplies to the polling places as early as this week. Those supplies are traditionally delivered to polling places the day before the election, which gives the precinct officials that evening before the election to set up the voting booths, registration tables, voting machine(s), and more. Kawauchi held debriefings with precinct officials around the island a few weeks ago, and in response to “supply delivery problems,” Kawauchi had proposed the up to weeks-early delivery of supplies. But precinct officials in the meetings balked and said that was a bad idea–it wasn’t clear if Kawauchi intended to deliver those supplies to the often unstaffed polling places, or to the precinct officials’ homes or place of work. And the supplies then would have been out there, to no obvious purpose, creating a storage and security issue for the 40 precinct chairs. When one Kona side precinct official heard that Kawauchi had announced her intent via the Tribune-Herald last week, he said “Did she not listen? We told her that was a bad idea.”
In his letter, Nago asked Kawauchi to return to the State all elections supplies, including precinct cans, supply boxes, their contents, and cell phones.
Nago attended the debriefings, and said Kawauchi’s solutions to problems were primarily changing tried-and-true timelines and procedures, or adding staff. He said there was no effort to address quality control nor to bring in experienced election workers to be part of the County’s Elections Staff. Quidilla said Tuesday that Kawauchi’s decisions to try to change procedures was evidence of a lack of understanding of the full scope of the elections work, where changing one procedure or timeline may affect others downstream in the process. Kawauchi told the State Elections Commission on May 30 she had no elections experience, only a general understanding of Hawaii law. And in January she fired longtime Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto, and since then has terminated several experienced elections workers, including some temporary Altres Staffing workers who had years of experience. Other workers called in sick just before Primary Election Day.
The State has a detailed set of Elections Procedures. In the recent training workshops on Kaua’i and Maui, which were set up by the State and by the other County Clerks to train Hawaii County’s Clerk and staff, detailed information was included about all the Elections Office responsibilities in an election year and in a non-election year, including detailed timelines for every step of the way. Quidilla pointed out the procedures have worked in all counties successfully for multiple election cycles.
Another factor in the State’s decision was Kawauchi’s refusal to communicate with the press. The State has been getting numerous calls from the media about routine elections matters that should be handled by the County, most recently about when the Hawaii County yellow voter cards were to be mailed out and why they were going out later than the other counties’ cards. Kawauchi has steadfastly refused to communicate with the media to answer even basic elections questions, which has impeded the ability of the press to help encourage voter registration and voting. The Big Island Press Club Board, after the Primary Election, wrote Kawauchi a letter telling her of their disappointment in the lack of communication and requesting she communicate fairly and openly with the press. Since that letter, delivered personally on August 16, Kawauchi has continued to be silent and not respond to most press inquiries.
Neither Kawauchi nor her boss, County Council Chair Dominic Yagong, responded to emails asking for comment. However, KITV 4 television Tuesday night said Yagong told them he supports Kawauchi, and thinks she would do a good job (on the election). He also told KITV he is going to call for an investigation into what led up to the Primary Day failures. It’s not clear what such an investigation would reveal that has not already been reported by Kawauchi in her report to the County Council on August 20, nor in her subsequent debriefings with the precinct officials.