If people were hoping for detailed answers — or even heads to roll — following major ballot shortages on Election Day, they didn’t get them at Friday’s Elections Commission meeting.
The Election Day crisis, which came after primary election mishaps on the Big Island, resulted in long lines and likely deterred hundreds of people from casting votes. It also prompted a lawsuit and a long list of legislative proposals aimed at reforming state elections processes.
After postponing an announcement of the subcommittee’s findings for longer than a month, commissioners on Friday told members of the public that poor management and flawed operating procedures triggered the ballot shortages. But they didn’t assign blame.
“Despite your most sincere efforts and intentions, you’ve never been able to maintain a practice that delivers all the information the commission can and should provide to the public,” testified Marsha Joyner, former president of Hawaii’s Martin Luther King Coalition.
Dissatisfaction with the way elections were run last year has risen to state lawmakers’ attention.
A number of bills propose expanding the power of the Elections Commission to more closely monitor the chief election officer. And at least one bill asks that the responsibility of supervising elections be transferred to the lieutenant governor.
State Elections Chief Scott Nago has come under heat for the Oahu ballot shortages. Some critics — including Republican state Sen. Sam Slom — had called for the Nago’s termination, saying he was responsible for the preventable administrative flaws that led to the ballot problems.
But commissioners emphasized Friday that Nago would not be fired.
“Mistakes were made but do not rise to the level of (Nago’s removal),” said Commission Chair William Marston.
Maui County Clerk Jeff Kuwata even testified in support of Nago Friday, pointing out that the elections chief was severely short-staffed and charged with solving the series of snafus that occurred on the Big Island prior to the general election.
The commission met in executive session for an hour and a half Friday before disclosing the subcommittee’s conclusions.
In a two-minute synopsis, Young on Friday said he and Okazaki had interviewed several people with ties to the state Office of Elections, including six department heads and former Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina.
They said they didn’t uncover any wrongdoing or unlawful activity.
What Young and Okazaki found instead were critical errors in logistics, such as miscalculations in how many ballots each precinct needed. Young said that the state elections office lacked enough well-trained staff to carry out the elections properly.
According to Young, that’s largely because the office in October had to send its experienced ballot operations section head Lori Tomczyk to the Big Island to take over the island’s elections from Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi. Young said Tomczyk’s replacement wasn’t trained well enough to know how many ballots to send to each precinct.
“There was no one single cause for the shortage but rather several operational problems that we are trying to solve now,” Young said.
Young said that the commission plans to impose stricter conditions on Nago so that ballot shortages and other problems don’t happen again in the future. The commission is in the process of figuring out what concrete solutions will be implemented.
“We have retained the elections officer with some conditions to improve managerial skills, to improve the systems so they don’t fall through the crack again,” Young told Civil Beat.
He also noted that the commission will encourage the state elections office to begin publishing regular evaluations so that commissioners can hold Nago and others accountable for their job.
Nago was tight-lipped in his reaction to the decision, but said that his office is in the process of making changes to the way he and his staff operate.
“Accountability in the office needs to change,” he said. “There’s no single point of failure.”
Nago didn’t specify what changes were being made.
The commission on Friday announced its conclusions after meeting for an hour and a half behind closed doors in executive session.
Long drawn-out executive sessions have occurred at each of the past three commission meetings.
Commissioners in November announced their decision to form the committee after meeting in executive session for an hour.
The idea was that Young and Okazaki would summarize their findings at a meeting held in December.
When that didn’t happen, they said they would announce their conclusions earlier this month. But after a two-hour executive session, Marston told attendees that, because the matter involved personnel, the commission was legally barred from disclosing any information at that time.
The delay was met by frustration on the part of concerned citizens and reporters.
Young, citing legal constraints due to personnel issues, said that the commissioners had to wait until today’s meeting to elaborate on their findings.
“We weren’t trying to waste anybody’s time,” he said. “We were told by the law that we had to have another meeting. It’s not us — it’s the law.”
Joyner on Friday again criticized the commission for continuously witholding information from the public.
“You’re not forthcoming with us … it reaches to some sort of conspiracy or corruption,” she said, pointing out that members of the public were asked to give their testimony before the commission went into executive session. “It’s unacceptable to the voters of Hawaii.”