Veteran lawmaker Romy Cachola defeated political newcomer Nicole Velasco by just 120 votes for the state House District 30 seat on Saturday.

Had it not been for mail-in absentee ballots, however, Velasco would be the representative-elect for the Sand Island-Kalihi-Honolulu airport area.

Now, Civil Beat has learned that Cachola may have played a direct role in ensuring at least some of those ballots were filled out in his favor.

Cachola won 51 percent to 46 percent. Because there are no opponents in the general election, the Democrat was elected to the House outright in the primary.

But if only Election Day and early walk-in votes had been counted, Velasco would have won in a landslide, 60 percent to 36 percent.

In fact, Cachola, 74, a term-limited member of the Honolulu City Council who served in the House from 1984 to 2000, was more dependent on mail-in absentee voting than any candidate in any primary race across the state.

According to a Civil Beat analysis, more than 70 percent of those who voted for Cachola in the Democratic primary against Velasco did so via a mail-in ballot. That was by far the highest percentage in Hawaii.

Of the 280 other primary candidates, only one even eclipsed 55 percent — Tiffany Au, a Republican who ran unopposed in House District 26 and now faces Democrat Scott Saiki in the general election.

In all, 41 percent of votes cast were mail-in votes, placing Cachola’s 70 percent figure in even sharper contrast.

Now, Cachola’s role in generating those mail-in votes is being talked about in some corners of Kalihi.

‘Nana, Did You Receive the Ballot?’

Civil Beat granted anonymity to a Filipino family in District 30 who says Cachola forced the grandmother of the house to complete an absentee ballot as he watched.

Anonymity was granted because family members could be subject to retaliation in the close-knit community.

The grandmother said she received her ballot on July 28. The next afternoon, Cachola visited the home when the grandmother was with the friend of a family member who did not speak Ilocano, and didn’t understand what Cachola and the grandmother were talking about.

The grandmother said Cachola just kind of barged in.

“He was already in the house, saying, ‘Nana, did you receive the ballot?'” she told Civil Beat in English. “I was getting ready to leave to go to a party, but he would not leave. ‘No, Nana, two minutes, sit down with me.'”

“He forced me to sit down,” she said. “He said, ‘Did you receive your ballot?’ Yes. ‘Where is it?’ So I took it and opened it. He then said, ‘Two minutes, you can do it now.’ He would not go until I finished.”

The woman handed the ballot to Cachola, who opened it.

“And he just like forced me to do the voting in front of him, and I did not want to. I told him, ‘I have to go, I know what to do.’ So I stopped what I did, then he looked at his name. I scratched it, and he watched me do it all the way until I finished.”

The woman said Cachola then told her to put the ballot in the state Elections Office envelope, to seal it and then give it to him to mail. He then left the house with the ballot in hand.

Son: ‘He Wanted My Ballots’

The woman’s son told Civil Beat that Cachola also tried to collect his absentee ballot and that of his son’s.

“Even though I don’t know the law, that seems illegal to open up the ballot,” he said. “No politician can do that.”

Despite repeated visits, Cachola did not catch the son and grandson at home. When he called, the son would not answer because caller identification showed the number of the clinic operated by Cachola’s wife.

“He wanted my ballots,” said the son.

The son said he tried to obtain another absentee ballot for his mother about a week before the election so that she could vote as she wanted. But the Elections Office told the family that she had already voted.

The family, who supported Velasco and sign-waved on her behalf, said they told Velasco about what happened.

Velasco — a 26-year-old member of the Kalihi/Palama Neighborhood Board who resigned from the State Auditor’s Office to run for the House seat — sent Civil Beat a statement late Wednesday:

I trust the voters more than I trust the people they vote for.

If there are voting irregularities, I am confident that the elected officials will look into them.

My campaign was the first in my lifetime commitment to the voters. I will always be faithful to my commitment. I know that over time, that commitment to the people will be reciprocated.

Cachola: ‘Here to Assist Voters’

Cachola dismissed the concerns, saying he has never acted inappropriately.

“Anybody can say anything,” he said. “But when it comes to things like this, when I walk the district, there are a lot of people who make mistakes (on ballots). There are a lot of spoiled ballots. I have to explain to them to pick the right party.”

Cachola said many voters are confused because the Honolulu mayor’s race is a nonpartisan contest, but voters have to pick a party in order to vote in partisan legislative races like his. In addition to Democrat and Republican, one of the party identifications on the ballot is labeled “nonpartisan.”

“I want to strive to make sure they voted right,” he said.

Asked if he ever watched someone fill out a ballot or mail it for them, Cachola said no. But he did say he helps relatives mail their absentee ballots and reminds constituents to mail their ballots before the deadline.

“Whatever people might say, I can honestly tell you I am above board,” he said. “This is just one isolated complaint. I’m here to help and assist and make sure there are not spoiled ballots.”

‘They Trust Me’

Most of Cachola’s mail-in votes in the 2012 primary — and enough to carry him from landslide loss to narrow win — came from those in Precinct 30-02, one of four precincts in District 30. He got 685 mail-in votes in the precinct to 243 for Velasco.

She beat him in Election Day voting, early walk-in voting and mail-in absentee voting in each of the three other precincts in the district, and beat him in Election Day voting and early walk-in voting in Precinct 30-02 as well.

“You have to understand that in my district people are working two, three jobs, nighttime, daytime, they don’t have time to go to the polls,” he said Wednesday. “So, when I walk the district, they want to vote absentee. So I give them the forms — the application. All our opponents are doing something, they go house to house, you’ve got to know the composition of the district.”

Asked if it was his knowledge of the district that led him to carry the ballot applications with him, Cachola said, “You can look at it this way: I’ve been servicing that district for quite some time, OK? And I have always been very responsive to their requests. They feel comfortable talking to me. I know how to speak the dialect, either Tagalog or Ilocano. There’s a lot of voters in the Filipino community, and sometimes for me to talk Ilocano or Tagalog, they trust me.”

Cachola added that absentee balloting can help increase voter turnout.

Does he ever take his canvassing one step further and actually help constituents fill out their ballots?

“No. No way,” he said. “It’s against the law. Look at it this way, OK? I know what’s legal and what’s not legal, OK? No.”

He continued: “I give them the application, they fill it out, they mail it in. … But, when it comes to the ballot, that’s a no-no. I won’t do that.”

“We didn’t do anything illegal.”

Echoes of 2000 Council Race

There was a similar voting pattern when Cachola first ran for the City Council in 2000.

In a primary election race, he won 46 percent to 43 percent over his closest competitor, Dennis Nakasato. Among mail-in absentee voters, Cachola secured 59 percent of the vote. Among those who voted in person — either on Election Day or before it — he got only 43 percent of the vote.

He got 313 of 352 mail-in votes (88.9 percent) in Precinct 30-03, 174 of 193 mail-in votes (90.1 percent) in Precinct 30-04 and 210 of 284 mail-in votes (73.9 percent) in Precincts 29-04 and 29-06 combined.

Cachola handily won re-election to the Council in 2004 and 2008.

Cachola’s knack for winning absentee ballots has not gone unnoticed.

Hawaii Reporter said in a 2002 article that Cachola “is notorious in his Kalihi district for going from nursing homes to elderly care homes ‘to get out the vote’ through absentee by mail ballots.”

Speaking to Civil Beat, Cahcola said that he knows where the votes are.

“Fern (Elementary) School has two precincts, precinct 1 and 2. And about two-thirds of the votes come from those two precincts. … That’s above the freeway and under the freeway. And the rest is like the military, which is only about 500 votes, and you cannot get into there. Then the other community is below the stadium, where there is about over a thousand votes — meaning voters — but not 50 percent of those easily don’t even vote, meaning that’s the statewide average. So, you have to cater and service the people who want to vote but don’t have the time to go and vote.”

The deadline for any formal complaint to the Elections Office about the Aug. 11 primary is Monday.

Analysis of Cachola v. Velasco

Precinct & Vote Type Velasco Votes Velasco Percentage Cachola Votes Cachola Percentage
30-01 Election Day 232 61.5% 126 33.4%
30-01 Early Walk-Ins 20 62.5% 8 25%
30-01 Mail-In Absentee 154 48.6% 153 48.3%
30-02 Election Day 167 51.9% 143 44.4%
30-02 Early Walk-Ins 25 51% 20 40.8%
30-02 Mail-In Absentee 243 25.9% 685 72.9%
30-03 Election Day 7 87.5% 1 12.5%
30-03 Early Walk-Ins 1 100% 0 0%
30-03 Mail-In Absentee 7 87.5% 1 12.5%
30-04 Election Day 147 67.4% 61 28%
30-04 Early Walk-Ins 11 68.8% 4 25%
30-04 Mail-In Absentee 102 71.8% 34 23.9%
Full Total 1,116 45.9% 1,236 50.9%

Source: Precinct Report

Vote Type Velasco Votes Velasco Percentage Cachola Votes Cachola Percentage
Total Election Day 553 59.8% 331 35.8%
Total Early Walk-Ins 57 58.2% 32 32.7%
Total Mail-In Absentee 506 36% 873 62%

Source: Civil Beat analysis of precinct report

Candidate Name Percent of Votes from Mail Rank
CACHOLA, Romy M. 70.6% 1
AU, Tiffany H.Y. 56.7% 2
LOW, Jeremy 54.6% 3
SAIKI, Scott K. 53.8% 4
TAKAI, K. Mark 52.4% 5
Statewide Average 40.8%
BONK, Keiko 22.6% 277
HANLON, Colin E. 21.3% 278
CEREDON, Liscencio (Lising) 20.8% 279
HELM, Kanohowailuku 19% 280
FALE, Richard 17.9% 281

Source: Civil Beat analysis of precinct data

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Nick Grube and Michael Levine contributed to this article.

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