The Green Party of Hawaii has asked a state court to stop the chief elections officer from conducting another election until there are new rules in place to prevent the type of voter disenfranchisement that occurred in November.
Dozens of polling places ran low on paper ballots during the 2012 general election, causing voters to either stand in line for hours or just abandon the effort altogether.
Maui attorney Lance Collins, representing the Green Party and seven individual plaintiffs from around the state, said Monday that Hawaii Elections Chief Scott Nago’s mishandling of the election has eroded public confidence in the entire process.
The lawsuit filed Friday in 2nd Circuit Court alleges that when Nago repealed the entire set of administrative rules in January 2010 and replaced them with new rules, he failed to adopt a rule regarding the methodology used to determine the number of blank ballots to be printed for an election.
The methodology his staff used for the general election — upping the number of ballots 25 percent over the amount cast in the primary — led to his office having to rush out ballots to 51 polling places that ran low on Election Day. Almost two dozen sites ran out completely.
Nago told the state Elections Commission at its November meeting that his office is looking for a new formula. He said it wasn’t a matter of how many ballots were printed so much as how they were disseminated to the precincts, particularly when certain sites ran low.
The commission created a two-person subcommittee to investigate the matter. It is expected to prepare a report for the full commission to consider the week of Jan. 7.
Nago said Monday that the commission has talked to him regarding the investigation and he has supported its efforts to ascertain all pertinent facts as requested. He said he can’t comment on pending litigation.
Collins said he is glad the commission is looking into the matter. He said the lawsuit is an outside effort toward that end, with the ultimate goal of ensuring future elections run smoothly.
Aside from asking for a new methodology to determine how many ballots are printed, the lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the procedures by which a precinct requests additional ballots when it runs out and how to rectify the situation when a voter casts a ballot that contains some races in which the voter is not entitled to vote. The suit alleges these were adopted without complying with procedures in Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 91.
Collins said one of the most important things is how ballots are counted when people vote the wrong ballots. Ballots vary by precinct based on what district the lawmaker represents. So if someone got the wrong ballot, they could vote for candidates they should not be able to vote for, and at the same time be unable to vote for the candidates who would represent them.
“It always seems to be more important when it could affect the outcome of a race, but the more long-term problem is it erodes confidence in the electoral process,” Collins said in an interview Monday outside the Capitol Building in Honolulu. “People are simply like, ‘Well, I guess if they don’t count 50, 100, 200 ballots and it doesn’t mean anything, then why should I come to vote?’ And especially the people who may realize after they voted that they potentially voted a wrong ballot, they’re the ones most likely to not come vote again.”
Lisa Jacobs, part of the legal team in the lawsuit, was waving signs supporting Green Party candidate Keiko Bonk for state representative when voters outside the Hokulani Elementary School polling place told her Bonk’s name wasn’t on the ballot.
Jacobs said she realized the wrong ballots had been delivered to the site and became very concerned.
Bonk said her campaign’s legal team was unable to find out from the Elections Office why the process fell apart or where it broke down.
“I have concerns not just for the race that I just ran, but also for future races for other people,” she said, adding that two of the four precincts in her district ran out of ballots.
Bonk lost the race to incumbent Democrat Calvin Say by 2,561 votes, or 24 percent.
Collins said Hokulani Elementary poll workers made a call to the Elections Office around noon to say they were running low on ballots. Ballots weren’t delivered until 5 p.m. or so, by which time the site had run out completely and there was a long line of voters waiting to use the sole electronic voting machine.
The volunteer poll workers later realized the reserves were the wrong ballots, so the precinct had to close for about 15 minutes, Collins said. Meantime, dozens of people gave up on the hours-long line and went home.
On the other hand, he said there were some polling sites like Wilson Elementary that reportedly had people who refused to leave until they cast ballots.
The two extremes make it difficult, if not impossible, to directly challenge the election results, Collins said.
“Recognizing that limitation, we decided what we could do is try to prevent this from ever happening again,” he said.
“The problem is there really wasn’t an acknowledgment about what exactly he was sorry for,” Collins said. “Was he sorry because people were mad? Or was he sorry because he incorrectly did certain things?”
Bonk, who has been involved with the Green Party for 28 years, said the issue is about a basic democratic process. She said she supports the plaintiffs’ effort to get answers for Hawaii residents and also to establish some standards for elections and balloting.
In addition to the Green Party, the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Karen Holt, Elizabeth Ruze, Michael Kratzke, Moani Keala Akaka, Kim Duffett, Mary Jo Dennison and Makaala Kaaumoana.