Not a good day to be Scott Nago.

After sitting through an hour of impassioned pleas from the public calling for his head to roll Tuesday, Nago had to endure an hour of criticism and questions from the state Elections Commission.

But when dozens of precincts face ballot shortages during a historic general election, someone has to be held to account for it. And that someone is Nago, Hawaii’s chief elections officer.

“The office has one basic responsibility and that is to run an efficient, honest, productive election every two years. That’s it,” state Sen. Sam Slom told the commission. “This year in the general election there was a major failure. … A simple, ‘I apologize,’ I don’t feel is adequate or sufficient.”

Slom, whose district covering Hawaii Kai to Diamond Head was affected by the ballot shortage, said all the errors were avoidable and a change in leadership is needed. He called on the nine-member commission as an independent body to expedite its internal review and take “strong, decisive action.”

“In order to regain trust in our process, we have to do something differently,” Slom said. “The public for too long has rolled over and we’ve played this local-boy game of ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is.'”

The colossal screw-up disenfranchised voters who gave up on the incredibly long lines of people who waited for reserve ballots to be delivered to their polling places Nov. 6. It also wrecked the public’s faith in the election system in a state that already has the nation’s worst voter turnout.

Some 35 people packed the room for the commission’s meeting. The frustration was palpable, as Commissioner Xara Marshall underscored shortly before the commission went behind closed doors to consider and evaluate the role and performance of Nago and the Office of Elections.

The commission emerged from its executive session an hour later. Chair William Marston, who was quick to define his role as the commission’s spokesman not leader, read a prepared statement announcing the decision to create a subcommittee to “secure all pertinent facts” in the matter.

Two commissioners — Danny Young and Zale Okazaki, both of Oahu — were appointed to carry out this task and prepare a report for the full commission to consider the week of Jan. 7.

Some in the crowd were skeptic over how well the unpaid subcommittee would do in conducting its further investigation, given the fact that no extra resources would be allocated for the job and the work would be done over the holiday season.

“We want to do it right,” Marston said after the meeting. “We’re very concerned about what the public feels and we’re concerned as a commission to try to rectify that. It’s gut-wrenching.”

Finding A New Formula

While there were some terse exchanges between members of the public and commissioners, Nago remained cool as he responded to questions and absorbed criticism.

He apologized again for having to take more ballots to 51 polling places on Election Day. He said his office used the wrong formula to determine how many ballots were needed at each precinct.

Normally, the number of ballots needed for the general election is based on the amount used in the general election four years prior. But due to the state redrawing legislative boundaries this year, Nago said the August primary election was used as the basis.

Lori Tomczyk, who as ballot operations section head is in charge of ballot distribution, decided to bump up the number of ballots 25 percent over the amount in the primary, Nago said.

“We thought it would be sufficient. Obviously, it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. We will find another model.”

Tomczyk, a longtime state elections official, reportedly resigned earlier this month at Nago’s request.

The commissioners hammered Nago for using any formula at all. The chair asked why he wouldn’t just order enough ballots for every registered voter in the state.

Nago said every jurisdiction in the country uses some type of formula. Hawaii has used some form of its current model since the 1980s, he said, though this year was unique because of the redistricting.

The commissioners pressed him for specific reasons, but came up empty.

“The cost of paper and ink can’t be that much,” Commissioner Patricia Berg said. “I question the use of this model.”

It’s not a cost issue, Nago said, it’s about logistics and security. He didn’t expand on the rationale, leaving commissioners visibly dissatisfied.

“At the very least, we need you to come up with a new formula or new statement on how it’s going to be handled, and the public should know that,” Marston said.

Nago said he’s looking at other formulas and likely won’t use this year’s model again. He said his office is also working on plans to not station the reserve ballots in a central area, instead dispersing them throughout the state for faster deployment.

Young, who was particularly agitated by the personal attacks commissioners have received, said the public needs more reassurance than the elections chief saying he won’t use the same formula.

“It’s a fiasco,” Young said. “You’ve already said it’s not a cost factor. (The ballots) are printed in Hawaii. What’s the problem? You don’t need a formula.”

Move To All Mail-In Election

On Monday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said he refused to sit idly as the election’s office conducted its own review of what went wrong.

Abercrombie said part of his legislative package in January will include a proposal to move to a 100 percent mail-in voting system. He called the ballot shortages a “serious problem” that has “tarnished the election process and eroded public confidence.”

An attempt to move Hawaii to an all mail-in voting system died in committee last legislative session. Oregon and Washington are the only states that have all mail-in voting.

Nago said after the meeting that Hawaii doesn’t have the infrastructure — such as a vendor to stuff and mail the ballots — for an all mail-in system. But he said the current system’s mix of early voting and casting ballots at the polls on election day is not the most effective.

Investigations Ongoing

The governor has directed Attorney General David Louie to investigate the Office of Elections and the circumstances that resulted in the ballot shortages.

“I agree with criticisms that the handling of election operations raises legitimate concerns,” Abercrombie said in a statement.

Marston said the commission supports anything that helps the election process, but feels it is the body charged with doing the primary investigation.

“We’re not competing with anybody, we don’t want them to compete with us,” he said.

Some members of the public who testified called on the commission to forward the matter to the feds to investigate. Rumors have swirled over whether the 51 polling places that faced ballot shortages were intentionally targeted.

Nago said after the meeting that the only pattern his office has found is 75 percent of the precincts that ran low on ballots were “five-unit polling places,” the bigger voting sites that serve 4,000 to 6,000 voters apiece.

He said he intends to work with the commission’s subcommittee to help resolve the matter.

Talking to reporters, Nago said he wasn’t worried about losing his job. He declined to comment on public requests for his resignation.

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