State Takes Over Election Operations From County
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by Dave Smith
The state Office of Elections announced today that it will be taking over control of voting activities on the Big Island for the Nov. 6 general election.
The move essentially rescinds the authority delegated to the Hawaii County Elections Divisions for election-day activities, including operation of voting stations, delivery and collection of votes and operation of the voting control center in Hilo.
Lori Tomczyk, currently head of the ballot operations section for the state elections office who provided support on the Big Island during the primary, will be lead administrator for the general election.
Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said state election officials have already established separate control and counting centers in the State Office Building in Hilo. He emphasized that the change will be “transparent” to voters and poll workers.
County election workers will continue to handle voter registration – Monday is the deadline to register for the general election – and absentee voting, both now and on election day.
“We believe that this decision best ensures a successful general election in the County of Hawaii,” Nago said in a statement issued today.
State elections spokesman Rex Quidilla told Big Island Now that that the move “was not something we went into lightly.”
He said the action was taken for “a whole host of reasons.”
One he singled out was the failure of Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi to present the state with an action plan spelling out changes in procedures for the general election.
During the Aug. 11 primary election, delays in delivery of voting materials and other problems resulted in nearly a third of the Big Island’s 40 precincts opening late, prompting Gov. Neil Abercrombie to extend the voting period by 90 minutes island-wide. Workers at polling places also had difficulties communicating with the elections office in part because of improperly programmed cell phones.
Kawauchi was initially asked to provide her action plan by Sept. 27, but Quidilla said despite that request, and a later reminder, no plan was provided.
He said that state officials were also concerned about comments Kawauchi made during an elections workshop held on Maui last week that Nago felt did not properly address the problems that arose during the primary.
“We felt that put the general election in jeopardy,” Quidilla said.
He said Nago has also been concerned about Kawauchi’s lack of communication, which he said began before the primary and hasn’t improved since the election.
The clerk’s lack of communication with the media was also troubling, he said, because of the effect that had on public confidence in the election process.
“She still hasn’t improved in that area,” Quidilla said.
Kawauchi rarely has returned the numerous calls from Big Island Now — and did not respond to one placed today — or other island media seeking information and comment on election preparations.
She has seemed to favor the Honolulu media, however, and ironically the Star-Advertiser today published an article in which Kawauchi expressed confidence in her election preparations. The newspaper said the article stemmed from an “extensive” interview at the newspaper last week.
Kawauchi has had a contentious relationship with state officials since before the primary when she closed the Hilo elections office to review voting rolls without notifying Nago.
Nago was also critical of Kawauchi’s failure to diagnose problems from the primary in what he considered a timely manner. Following a meeting with her in Hilo, he took possession of the county’s polling books to carry out his own investigation.
Kawauchi also failed to meet with Nago on other occasions and instead of attending the first of three workshops held around the state to share successful election procedures, she sent her deputy and other staff, saying she couldn’t go because she had to meet with precinct officials on the Big Island.
Her overall actions resulted in a call for an investigation by the League of Women Voters, which the state Elections Commission declined to do, and for the hiring of an experienced administrator.
Kawauchi has had three elections administrators this year, including 12-year election chief Pat Nakamoto who was fired in January only to be reinstated, then placed on paid leave and reinstated again. She is currently out on stress leave.
Nakamoto and another fired elections worker have filed lawsuits against the county over their termination.
As for the general election, the state has always paid the cost of the roughly 600 poll workers and on Nov. 6 will also handle their administration, Quidilla said.
He said today’s move was unprecedented on a neighbor island, and Nago’s office had to research state law to determine whether it could even be done.
However, officials will be following the model used on Oahu, where because of its close proximity the state Office of Elections handles all polling duties.
Quidilla said Nago sees today’s move as a temporary action. He said in the past elections have been “well-run and well-coordinated” by Big Island officials, and he expects that will again be the case in 2014.
County Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, who has been critical of Kawauchi’s handling of the election preparations, applauded the state’s move.
“This should give the public more confidence in the general election,” he said.
Onishi had introduced a resolution calling for the hiring of an experienced election administrator. The resolution was to be heard at a meeting Wednesday but now is apparently moot.
Onishi told Big Island Now that in light of the state’s action he planned to withdraw the resolution.