Problems with the 2012 election and continued low voter turnout are sparking a number of legislative proposals this year.

The Hawaii Legislature this session is expected to consider a number of election reform proposals including a measure that advocates hope will rectify the series of administrative mishaps that tarnished last year’s elections.

Good-government advocates also want to boost voter participation by making it easier for Hawaii voters to cast their ballots.

Most of the snafus revolved around the Big Island and its former county clerk Jamae Kawauchi, who was blamed for severely mishandling her elections-related preparation duties and causing the delayed opening of 13 polling places on the island the day of the primary.

The problems highlighted an electoral system that critics said lacked clarity about who could hold Kawauchi accountable and ensure that elections run smoothly.

“The public’s confidence was badly shaken last summer,” said Janet Mason, League of Women Voters of Hawaii (LMVH) vice president. “We had a particular problem that we had never really experienced before.”

Mason said it’s important that voters have confidence in the election process.

“Since we’re an island state, I think to conduct elections properly requires both levels of government, but there should be no confusion about who’s doing what,” she said.

The counties in particular are pushing for stronger state involvement in the administration of elections.

One proposal would require Hawaii’s chief election officer and Elections Commission to come up with “a mechanism to monitor” each county as it prepares for an election, making sure it’s on track. The resolution would also give state elections authorities the power to intervene in the preparation process if necessary.

The proposal comes as part of a 2013 legislative package put together by the Hawaii State Association of the Counties (HSAC), which includes the state’s four county councils.

“It is of utmost importance to pursue a remedy to restore and assure confidence in the electoral process,” according to a resolution passed by the organization.

Hawaii County Councilman Dennis Onishi, who frequently spoke out against Kawauchi, said a monitoring mechanism could be a simple checklist that the state can go through to make sure each county is prepared for the election.

“I think that’s the problem we had on the Big Island. They thought everything was under control, but it wasn’t,” Onishi said. “Ballot boxes where here and there, the phones weren’t working — those kinds of things that have to be physically checked on by the state at least one week prior to the election.”

State law explicitly gives counties responsibility over voter registration and absentee voting and leaves election day duties — such as the operation of polling places and the delivery and collection of ballots — to the state. But the state elections office can by law assign those tasks to county clerks on neighbor islands because the state headquarters is on Oahu.

Last October, in an unprecedented move that officials said was temporary, Hawaii Chief Election Officer Scott Nago took election day responsibilities away from Kawauchi, citing his inability to communicate with her and troubleshoot remaining logistical issues.

If HSAC’s proposal passes the Legislature, it would give state elections officials a way to prevent those sorts of hiccups from occurring in the first place.

The measure “isn’t going to cost anything,” the LWVH’s Mason said. “It’s a correction to the system, and we need to learn from our mistakes.”

Still, state elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said last year’s elections fiasco was an unusual problem that state officials don’t anticipate will happen again.

“The state and counties have a shared responsibility and shared reliance on each other,” he said, emphasizing that recent mishaps stemmed from specific administrative flaws. “That relationship has worked very well with the exception of Hawaii County in 2012.”

Quidilla wouldn’t comment on the legislative proposals but said that the state elections office is often consulted by the Legislature about the technical aspects of administering an election.

Measures Propose Checks and Balances Among Elections Officials

Mason said the LWVH is planning to introduce a related measure that would give the state Elections Commission oversight of the chief election officer.

The league’s proposal will complement the counties plan, she said, and make clear who has the ultimate authority.

“It seems like there’s a gap as far as providing general supervision of the chief elections officer,” Mason said.

Onishi said he agreed that the two measures could work together to improve the administration of elections, likening the relationships among the state, counties and commission to a system of checks and balances.

“The commission should have the power to make sure the chief elections officer is doing the proper job,” he said. “If there are any complaints, they (the commission) has the power to investigate them. They shouldn’t be stepping into the process part — they just need to see that the state elections official is properly supervising everyone.”

Also included in the measure will be a proposal that the commission be given its own staff to handle the extra workload, according to Mason.

The elections office has had staff but not the commission itself. And limited staffing for elections offices statewide emerged as a major obstacle to conducting smooth elections last year.

Onishi attributed another spate of problems at Oahu polls the day of the general to understaffing in the City and County of Honolulu’s elections office.

Proposals Push For Modern Voting Practices

HSAC is also proposing a bill that would allow people to register to vote on the same day as an election.

Mason said the LWVH strongly supports the measure as a means of enhancing voter participation.

“We have a longer-term agenda of modernizing voting practices,” she said. Mason pointed out that the Legislature last session passed a bill that is expected to enable online voter registration by 2016.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has said that he will push for an all-mail voting system this session. And Mason’s group is echoing that idea.

Mason cited states like Washington and Oregon as examples of the system’s success. Both states have reported relatively high voter turnout in recent years.

“Frankly, we think doing this will be more effective and efficient than the current hybrid system — vote-by-mail and vote-in-person — we have right now,” Mason said.

But, she said, since more responsibility would be shifted to the counties, a new system would need to be carefully planned.

Onishi said he opposes those voter modernization measures because they could lead to unanticipated problems.

For instance, same-day registration, he said, would require the county elections officials to hire a new staff that would need to be properly trained, which has been a problem in the past.

And mail-in voting could pose a range of problems, including the late delivery of ballots, he said.

Still, Mason pointed to last year’s elections issues as evidence that the state’s elections system needs to change.

The 2012 election should serve as a wake-up call that the state needs to invest in a modern and effective voting system, she said.

“It’s a basic condition of making democracy work.”

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