Hundreds of Hawaii voters were likely disenfranchised in the 2012 elections after dozens of polling places ran out of ballots due to mismanagement and mishaps statewide.
This is the same state that recorded the nation’s lowest voter turnout with a lousy 44 percent of registered voters bothering to elect their leaders.
Then there was the debate over whether some candidates actually belonged to the political party they claimed or lived in the district they wanted to represent. Not to mention accusations of voter intimidation with candidates watching as voters filled out absentee ballots at home.
And so Hawaii entered 2013 amid lawsuits, investigations and a blitz of bills to fix the flaws.
What’s happened? Pretty much nothing.
This year’s legislative session wrapped up May 2 with only one significant election-reform bill passing.
Good-government groups celebrated the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 827. It prohibits employers, unions, candidates or their agents from assisting voters with completing absentee ballots.
Concerns of voter intimidation were raised last election over Rep. Romy Cachola’s hands-on approach to helping voters in his district with their absentee ballots. He denied any wrongdoing, but one family said he forced a grandmother to complete an absentee ballot as he watched.
He beat his opponent in the race, Nicole Velasco, by only a handful of votes, making the issue all the more critical to address.
“Lapses in election law produce unforeseen consequences, as we saw after the last election when questions were raised regarding possible candidate interference,” Kris Coffield, IMUAlliance legislative director, said in an April 25 statement. “This bill clarifies the boundary between candidates and their constituents when it comes to absentee ballots, which are being cast in record numbers as early voting becomes more popular.”
Virtually all the other measures put forward this past session were shelved until next year. These included bills to allow same-day voter registration and all-mail voting; increased oversight of the chief elections officer, Scott Nago; clarity of residency requirements; and publicly funded elections.
Kory Payne of Voter Owned Hawaii, a nonprofit working to modernize Hawaii’s public funding option for elections, said he was disappointed the bill the group was championing died at the end of session without sufficient explanation.
House Bill 1481 set out to create a public funding program for legislative candidates starting in 2016. It was later changed to apply only to House candidates.
“We really do not know what happened, other than we know it was primarily Sen. Clayton Hee who stopped the bill from passing,” Payne said Thursday. “Our calls to him to find out more have not been returned.”
Hee said in March when the Judiciary and Labor Committee he chairs passed the bill in a “half a bite” form that his support depended on answering how much the program would cost.
Payne doesn’t buy the argument that opposition to the law came down to money, especially because the final version of the bill didn’t include a fiscal component.
“They’ve been using it as an excuse when there were probably other reasons for opposing the law,” he said.
Payne has said that under the very improbable situation in which two candidates in every Senate and House race maxed out their allowed spending, it would cost $5 million annually. For just the House, the cost is estimated at $2.5 million. But more realistically, he said it will probably cost closer to $750,000 annually.
The group highlights an independent poll done that shows Hawaii voters support the bill by a two-to-one margin. The poll says only 5 percent of voters like the current laws and want to leave them alone.
Voter Owned Hawaii plans to “retool” in the interim, Payne said, noting the bill is still in committee so it has a chance to pass next session.
“We’re going to give it another shot,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to preventing corruption and saving taxpayer money in the long run.
“When legislators do not have to worry about seizing the biggest campaign funders, they’re free to make decisions based on both short- and long-term goals for what’s best for the state,” Payne said. “In the cycle of big funders determining who gets elected, it gets easy for lawmakers to fall into the trap of just passing laws to please them. It’s bad policy.”
A related measure, Senate Bill 381, died near the end session. It would have changed the formula for a comprehensive public funding pilot project on the Big Island and limited to 15 the number of candidates who can take advantage of the funding.
Carmille Lim, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a nonprofit good-government group, said the biggest disappointment this past session was the Legislature’s failure to pass bills that will hold elections officials accountable for the egregious mistakes made in 2012.
“We would’ve liked to have seen a more proactive approach,” she said.
A measure to expand the duties of the state Elections Commission to include conducting a performance evaluation of the chief election officer every six months passed the House, but House Bill 568 died in the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee without a hearing.
House Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads noted in his committee report that there needs to be further review of whether the performance evaluation should be made public.
The Elections Commission was expected to tackle the ballot-shortage problem. But its special two-person subcommittee tasked with investigating the issue only resulted in the commission telling the public that poor management and flawed operating procedures triggered the shortages.
The Green Party of Hawaii in December filed a lawsuit 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 or out of paper ballots during the general election, causing voters to either stand in line for hours or just abandon the effort altogether.
The lawsuit 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.
Instead, his staff decided to just up the number of ballots 25 percent over the amount cast in the primary. But this led to his office having to rush ballots out to 51 polling places.
Keiko Bonk, a Green Party candidate for a state House seat, said her district was one of those impacted by the ballot shortages. Even though she lost the election to Democrat Calvin Say by 24 percent of the vote, she remains concerned about the process for future races for other people.
“I’m more concerned about who’s running the show here and whether they have fair and organized systems worked out,” she said Thursday. “There are lot of things that need to be looked into in Hawaii.”
The case is ongoing, as is another that was filed in response to concerns over former House Speaker Say’s residency. That lawsuit, which Bonk said is being appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court, alleges that Say doesn’t actually live in the district he represents.
The lower courts kicked the legal challenge to the city clerk who oversees voter registration.
Lawmakers tried to address the issue legislatively, but were unable to get the measure passed this past session. Senate Bill 225 would have clarified the definition of “residency” in election law. It cleared the Senate but died in the House without a hearing.
Establishing a candidate’s residency was almost as much of an issue as party affiliation.
A bill to remove the financial hurdle of challenging a candidate’s party affiliation in court saw some movement in the Judiciary and Labor Committee, but was later shelved.
Senate Bill 223, which also changes the timeline for objections to the validity of nomination papers and clarifies existing election law, was in part a response to Sen. Laura Thielen running as a Democrat.
She was a Cabinet member under former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, which was part of the reason Democratic Party leaders fought her plan to run as a Democrat. Thielen went on to win election in November as a Democrat.
“Election-day registration would have helped increase voter turnout and also limited the need for provisional ballots,” Lim said. “There’s also a savings in terms of what’s printed and the part-time staff time used to filter those ballots.”
A March report by Nonprofit VOTE says states with election-day voter registration had turnout rates 12 percentage points higher than states without it.
The bill died in conference committee at the end of session.
House Bill 199 would have let the state conduct elections in whole or in part by mail, but it never got a hearing. Nor did several other bills that would have enabled the same thing.
House Bill 1027 came close. The comprehensive measure — which included provisions related to elections by mail, absentee ballots, secrecy, voter assistance and election fraud — passed out of the House but died in the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee without a hearing.
Another progressive measure, Senate Bill 216, would have established a pilot project to enable registered voters to cast their ballots online. It never got a hearing though.
Good-government groups testified throughout the session about Hawaii’s serious election problems.
“If we’re going to meet the challenges we’re going to face, we need to make bold moves sooner rather than later,” Payne said.
Another measure to die was House Bill 32, which the Senate shelved at the tail-end of session.
The bill would change the order of names on the ballot from alphabetical to random. The goal is to reduce the bias of voters being more inclined to choose the first name they see on the ballot when they don’t care as much who wins.
Sen. Sam Slom, who called for Nago’s resignation as election chief, told his colleages on the last day of session that he was disappointed the Legislature failed to solve many of the urgent problems the state faces.
“There are no consequences for bad behavior in government,” he said.