It was all too familiar — the faces, the room, the intermittent tension.
State lawmakers and concerned citizens took turns Friday accusing Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago of disenfranchising voters as Elections Commission members nodded and prodded him for answers.
“How many mistakes and how many errors are we going to allow?” state Sen. Sam Slom asked after calling on the commission to fire Nago, just as he did after the 2012 general election when dozens of precincts ran out of ballots.
“I implore you to make a decision today to change the leadership,” Slom said.
While the problems leading up to the four-hour meeting were different — counting glitches on Maui and Tropical Storm Iselle’s effect on Big Island voting in the recently completed primary — the end result was the same: complaints of voter disenfranchisement followed by tough talk, polite assurances and not much else.
“This has been a tough day,” Commission Chair William Marston said. “We want to investigate further.”
The commission decided to form three subcommittees — one each for Maui, the Big Island and Oahu — to look deeper into the issues and report back Oct. 3.
Despite calls for his ouster from Slom and state Sen. Russell Ruderman, Nago is keeping his job for now. He assured everyone he would tighten internal controls while deflecting some of the blame to the Governor’s Office.
Some 800 mail ballots on Maui accidentally went uncounted until they were discovered four days after the Aug. 9 primary. Nago pointed at how the office’s normal internal audit caught it, but acknowledged he should have reported the problem immediately instead of waiting two days after finding out.
“The bottom line, after you hold everybody accountable, the hammer falls on your head,” Commissioner Danny Young told Nago.
When Iselle slammed into the Big Island the day before the primary, Nago decided to close two of the four precincts in Puna because Civil Defense officials told him certain roads were impassible and thousands of people were without power.
But Nago said his office lacked the authority to extend voting hours, close additional precincts or take certain actions once the the polls opened Aug. 9. At that point, he said, only Gov. Neil Abercrombie had the legal power to do anything.
The Elections Office informed the Governor’s Office that day that more people in the Puna district were affected than originally thought, Nago said.
“It was a long day,” he said in an interview after the meeting, referring to Aug. 9. “I don’t know why the governor didn’t do anything.”
Ballots were initially going to be mailed to the 8,200 voters in the two closed precincts, minus those who had already voted by mail. But three days later, Nago issued a proclamation saying a walk-in election would be held instead, Aug. 15, at an elementary school.
The decision to hold the makeup election while residents were still digging out from severe storm damage and waiting for power to be restored has been harshly criticized.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of six Big Island voters who live in the Puna district and were unable to vote because they were trapped by fallen trees and power lines.
Until a judge rules on that lawsuit, expected in the next week, Nago said he can’t certify the primary results. That is holding up his ability to mail out absentee ballots to members of the military overseas for the Nov. 4 general election, something that must be done by Sept. 19.
Ruderman, who represents the affected Puna district, said it may be messy and inconvenient to extend an election or mail supplemental ballots, but that has to trump taking away people’s right to vote.
Notifying voters of the rescheduled election via fliers posted around the area was unreliable at best, he said.
Ruderman presented three possible solutions. He said the state could hold a revote for the two precincts that were closed; it could hold a revote for all four Puna precincts that ended up being affected; or it could provide mail ballots to people who sign declarations saying they were unable to vote because of the storm.
“I’m extremely concerned that my constituents were not allowed to vote,” he said.
Ruderman noted at least one local race that may have been directly affected by the storm and subsequent decision to only postpone the election six days. Hawaii County Council candidate Greggor Iligan avoided a two-person runoff by 149 votes, he said.
Nago said after the meeting that he doesn’t have the authority to do any of the things Ruderman suggested.
State Rep. Faye Hanohano, who represents Puna but lost her re-election bid, told the commission that “our leaders lack common sense of doing what is right.” She supported Ruderman’s revote ideas.
“Right now we have too many people left out,” Hanohano said.
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim looked prepared to testify too, but had to leave the meeting before her name was called.
Bart Dame was the lone person to defend Nago, at least to a certain extent. While he disagreed with Nago’s choice to hold the makeup election in Puna so soon, Dame said Nago’s decisions still seemed reasonable given the discretion he had under the law.
“Hawaii’s election process has some flaws,” Dame said. “But compared to a lot of horror stories on the mainland, they do a damn good job.”