Big Island voters who were unable to get to the polls due to Tropical Storm Iselle may get an opportunity to cast their ballots if the American Civil Liberties Union prevails in a lawsuit filed with the Hawaii Supreme Court on Thursday.
The ACLU of Hawaii levied the complaint against the state on behalf of six Big Island voters, all of whom live in the rural, storm-ravaged Puna district and all of whom were not allowed to vote because they were trapped by fallen trees and power lines.
“This lawsuit is not about challenging the outcome of any particular election,” ACLU attorney Daniel Gluck said. “What we want to do is make sure that every individual has a full opportunity to cast her or his ballot. We think every voter is important.”
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Iselle made landfall on the Big Island on Aug. 8, toppling trees and knocking out power to thousands of residents in the Puna district, which is an area about the size of Oahu, on the east side of the Big Island.
The storm caused the Hawaii Elections Office to close two of four Puna precincts on Aug. 9, meaning that nearly 8,200 registered voters would have to wait to cast their ballots.
Initially, the Office of Elections announced it would send mail ballots to affected registered voters. The agency changed course and decided to hold a walk-in election.
The make-up election was held Aug. 15 despite the protests of many residents and public officials, including U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who filed an unsuccessful legal challenge to delay the election.
Hanabusa and others complained that Aug. 15 was too soon to properly notify potential voters given that thousands of people were still without power and many roads remained blocked by fallen trees.
There were also voters in other Puna precincts that remained open on Aug. 9 who said they were unable to get to the polls that day. Those voters were not allowed to cast ballots Aug. 15.
The ACLU’s complaint relies on these “disenfranchised” voters to build its case against the state. Named as defendants are Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Attorney General David Louie, Chief Election Officer Scott Nago and Hawaii County Clerk Stewart Maeda.
The ACLU wants voters who were unable to cast ballots in the primary to be allowed to do so and to have those votes counted by Sept. 20.
While it’s unlikely any additional votes would be enough to sway the Senate race between Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz — which brought national attention to Puna — there’s a possibility it could alter the contest for District 4 on the Hawaii County Council.
The ACLU suit uses this race as an example. As it stands, Greggor Iligan has more than 50 percent of the vote, meaning he has won the seat and that there will not be a runoff election in November.
But according to ACLU calculations outlined in the complaint, that race could result in a two-person runoff if 149 or more voters cast ballots for any of the other candidates in the race.
The ACLU also wants the state to alter how it handles elections during disasters, asking the Supreme Court to deem unconstitutional the current process that allows the chief election officer to take charge.