The Big Island became the epicenter of primary election day fiascos when the delayed opening of numerous polling places forced Gov. Neil Abercrombie to issue an emergency proclamation authorizing them to stay open for an extra 90 minutes.

But that was just the latest snafu in a series of problems that all trace back to Jamae Kawauchi, the Hawaii County clerk who has been on the job since 2010.

The incidents have raised doubts about whether she’ll stay on board for the general election. The state Office of Elections on Thursday released a scathing report faulting Kawauchi for her mismanagement.

Rex Quidilla, state elections spokesperson, said the problems occurred because of a failure in leadership training and an unwillingness to ask for help.

“We at every turn provided offered our assistance,” he said. “We were met with reassurances that that wouldn’t be necessary.”

Meanwhile, and in the aftermath of the report, Kawauchi has gone on the offensive.

She first fired back on Friday, calling state elections chief Scott Nago “overly critical,” adding that “he is failing to see that the big picture goal is to get through the elections.” She went on to highlight Nago’s own failure to communicate.

On Monday, Kawauchi followed up with an eight-page memorandum reiterating her version of what transpired on primary day. She asked Abercrombie to conduct an independent review of the Hawaii Office of Elections and attributed election-day irregularities to problems she first identified in September 2011.

It was then that Kawauchi says she expressed her concerns to the state’s Elections Commission. Those problems included issues with the management of elections personnel, communication with staff, conduct of Election Day operations and working with county clerks to formulate election-related legislation.

Kawauchi did not return calls seeking comment.

Exactly why things went so awry at Big Island polls remains to be seen. But Kawauchi and her critics agree on one point: What happened on the Big Island the day of the primary cannot happen again.

Kawauchi Learning on the Job

The Hawaii County Council, chaired by Council Member Dominic Yagong, appointed Kawauchi by unanimous vote in late 2010.

The Hawaii County charter dictates that the council appoints its clerk. But Council Member Dennis Onishi told Civil Beat that the decision ultimately came down to Yagong.

“It’s the choice of the chair. After that, the majority would support the chair,” Onishi said. “So we just go along with the flow. That’s how the minority works.”

Both Onishi and elections officials have attributed Big Island’s elections-related mishaps to Kawauchi’s inexperience.

“We understood long beforehand that this was her first election,” said Quidilla. “We also understood that she was devoid of institutional knowledge that many clerks would rely on. We were also aware of the conflicts that arose because of redistricting. We did provide training for staff. We offered ourselves for assistance….There’s no substitute for experience.”

Before becoming county clerk, Kawauchi served on the County Charter Commission and worked at various law firms, including Carlsmith Ball LLP, Tsukazaki Yeh & Moore LLP and her own practice, according to her profile on the Hawaii County webpage. She also served as the assistant director of the Harvard Medical School Center of Excellence in Minority Health and Health Disparities, as a legal and public policy associate of the Harvard Law School and Harvard Graduate School of Education Civil Rights Project and as a Harvard University fellow.

Onishi emphasized that Kawauchi needs to seek assistance from an experienced elections administrator to properly implement the general election.

“The bottom line is she never ran an election. She’s just learning right now,” he said. According to Onishi, members of the state’s Elections Commission at a meeting in late May asked Kawauchi to seek help, and she agreed. “She didn’t follow up on any instructions or suggestions from them, so basically it’s up to her.”

At a press conference held in Hilo on Monday, Kawauchi indicated that she would readily accept guidance from elections officials, Yagong said.

Termination of Hawaii County Elections Employees Causes Stir

Criticism of Kawauchi first arose in January when she fired an office administrator and a warehouse manager — along with two other employees — just months before the primary election.

She fired the employees following allegations that some of them were drinking and storing alcohol on office property and that one was running a private business out of the elections warehouse.

One of those employees was Pat Nakamoto, who had served as the county’s civil service election administrator for more than 20 years, according to Nakamoto’s attorney Ted Hong. Nakamoto, who has been reinstated but remains on paid leave, was accused of permitting the other employees’ alleged misconduct. Hong plans to file lawsuits for three of the employees in a few weeks.

“My position to this date is that her lack of ability in understanding the collective bargaining laws is symptomatic of her inability to perform her job as county clerk,” he said. “None of the problems that came up here [Hawaii County] came up anywhere else throughout the state. They never came up when [Nakamoto] was there. If there was a more experienced individual, these problems wouldn’t have happened.”

Hawaii elections’ Quidilla also said that Kawauchi was at fault for not seeking help from experienced elections staff such as Nakamoto.

“She should surround herself around knowledgable elections administrators,” said Quidilla. “They have the knowledge, they know how to cope with problems on elections day. They know the procedures, solutions, ways to avoid issues.”

Hong worked as a poll watcher at the primary and said he witnessed irregularities at his polling site.

He said that the site’s chairman, in accordance with protocol, attempted calling the control center immediately before the polls opened to let officials know that everything was ready to go. But Hong said that control center staff weren’t answering the phone.

Upon checking some voting records, Hong said he also noticed that a voter who had cast an absentee ballot was allowed to vote a second time in person on election day.

“I’ve been a poll watcher at least three times,” he said. “All these details, which should be second nature, they couldn’t get it right. It’s not as if there’s no playbook, no instructions, no manuals. It’s all written down. Again, it goes back to Ms. Kawauchi’s inexplicable inability to comprehend these things.”

Hong holds Kawauchi — not the state — responsible for the election-day irregularities.

He notes that it was Kawauchi’s decision to take over as head of the Big Island’s Office of Elections, primarily by refusing Nakamoto an active role in the primary. According to Hong, Nakamoto reported back to work about a month ago. But Kawauchi immediately gave her a letter indicating she was on paid administrative leave.

“[Kawauchi] can’t take on both jobs and do both jobs responsibly,” said Hong. “Now, [Nakamoto] is sitting at home, chomping at the bit, watching things just disintegrating on the field.”

State Elections Officials Left In the Dark

As county clerk, Kawauchi is responsible for a range of duties, including clerical support at Hawaii County Council meetings and personnel and accounting services for county offices. Kawauchi also oversees all election activities on the Big Island, including their implementation, voter registration, voter education and absentee voting.

While working in coordination with county clerks to run combined state and county elections, the state Office of Elections by law must recognize the autonomy of each county.

“We weren’t able to take over the election,” said Hawaii Office of Elections’ Quidilla. “That is not our place to do so.”

There were a series of problems leading up to primary day.

Kawauchi’s office sent out about 175 yellow voter registration cards that contained incorrect polling place information. Kawauchi blamed the confusion on redistricting. Hawaii County was also the last county to send out absentee ballots.

Meantime, Kawauchi stopped communicating with the state’s Office of Elections, according to its Thursday report.

“The County of Hawaii has never refused this delegation of responsibility or the compensation from the State and it has always said it was up to the task, even when it terminated its civil service election administrator in an election year,” reads the report. “Instead, at all times, the County Clerk has contended that she was up to the task and that there were no problems. The State in reviewing the matter has spoken to the County Clerk several times and corresponded with her about the county’s readiness for the elections. At all times, the County Clerk had said she was prepared.”

Then, Kawauchi caused alarm by closing her office for an unscheduled audit on July 23 — less than three weeks before the primary. State elections officials were at a loss for why she decided to do so. In fact, they were unaware that she did so in the first place until late that day.

Scott Nago, the state’s chief of elections, wrote Kawauchi a letter in response to the audit: “Your closure on July 23, 2012, and your failure to thoroughly communicate to the rest of the election community and the media as to the reasons for the closure, has unnecessarily lead to significant speculation in the public about the integrity of our elections only a few weeks before the August 11, 2012 Primary Election. This is simply unacceptable on the part of a fellow election administrator.”

Kawauchi’s audit discovered four isolated incidents of people who had voted twice in the 2010 election.

Kawauchi Cuts Off Big Island Press

It wasn’t just elections officials who have condemned Kawauchi for her spotty communication.

The Big Island Chronicle’s Tiffany Edwards Hunt indicated that Kawauchi had intentionally left her and other Big Island journalists out of the loop as to election-day information.

“Let the record reflect that Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News are not on the media distribution list for the press releases,” she wrote in an email to various reporters on Aug. 11. “Big Island Chronicle and Big Island Video News representatives sat outside the County Building from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. waiting for Jamae to address us, after she scheduled an appointment with us to view delivery and collection procedures…Jamae never came out to address us in that two-hour period we sat waiting outside…Big Island Chronicle has filled out Jamae’s media form and yet Jamae has opted not to update Big Island Chronicle today. This is curious and alarming, the selective distribution of communication.”

Kawauchi failed to keep other media outlets in the loop, too. Reporters in late July attempted to find out why Kawauchi soon after the audit had paid a visit to the attorney general’s office. But they were unsuccessful. Even her county-assigned lawyer, Michael Udovick, was clueless as to why she was talking with the AG.

It wasn’t until a July 31 press conference when Kawauchi revealed that she had taken the matter to the AG’s office in an attempt to review the findings she discovered in the audit.

Members of the Big Island press said they scrambled to get word from Kawauchi following the primary, but the clerk made just one public appearance: at an Aug. 14 Kona Tea Party meeting.

Election-Day Delays

The delayed opening of numerous Big Island polling places forced Abercrombie to make a move that was virtually unprecedented. Emergency proclamations are typically reserved for natural disasters or other emergencies, according to the Office of Election’s report.

State election officials say Kawauchi couldn’t even tell them how many polling places had opened late. She said three, then 25, then at least 11. For their investigation elections officials took custody of record books for each of the 40 Big Island polling places. They concluded that 13 of the sites had opened late.

But Kawauchi on Monday blamed the state’s election office for her inability to provide them with an answer. She says state elections officials took her election records without her permission, hampering her ability to conduct her own investigation.

“In her eyes she feels that she did everything correctly,” said Onishi, the Hawaii County council member.

But council chair Yagong says it’s not Onishi’s place to scrutinize Kawauchi’s performance.

Yagong said that Kawauchi’s Monday press conference revealed exactly what went wrong on election day, that the root cause was a chain of human error — not just Kawauchi’s mismanagement.

“It really became a domino effect,” he said.

Elections staff the night before the primary delivered several elections cans to a wrong collection station, he explained. That station was 90 miles away from the correct precinct. What followed was a series of mishaps that were all compounded by improperly programmed phones, he said.

“As the county clerk, [Kawauchi’s] taken responsibility for what took place,” Yagong said. “It’s her job that things are done smoothly. What came out today was very simple: How does a clerk prepare for a can not being dropped off in right precinct?”

What About the General Election?

“This cannot be allowed to happen again,” reads the state elections office report. “The County Clerk must rededicate herself to mastering election administration or at the very minimum to surround herself with individuals with expertise in election administration.”

The nine-member Elections Commission this Wednesday is holding a regularly scheduled meeting at which attendees will discuss the problems that arose on the Big Island and review the elections-related roles of county clerks.

Kawauchi has requested that the lieutenant governor’s office oversee the November general election.

But Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz on Monday denied her request.

“Right now is a time to focus on ensuring that the November 6 General Election comes off without a hitch statewide, with a particular focus on Hawaii county,” reads a press release. “The law does not give my office jurisdiction or control over the election process…Now is not the time for blame-shifting. Now is the time to focus on solving the problem at hand.”

Yagong emphasizes that all concerned agencies need to work together “in a positive way” to ensure that the November election runs smoothly.

“We cannot work unless there’s agreement,” he said. “We need to bring the parties together, get everyone focused on the bigger picture. It’s not a matter of blame.”

As for whether Kawauchi will face disciplinary action — or even termination — Quidilla says that’s not his office’s territory. He also said he couldn’t respond to the memorandum she sent out Monday.

“We think that detracts from the main issue, which is to move forward and focus on improving elections administration,” said Quidilla. “We don’t have the luxury of time. [The general election] is just around the corner. The voters of Hawaii County deserve an election that is well-run.”

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