PAHOA, Hawaii — As a nation turns its eyes to a rural community on the Big Island that will decide a U.S. Senate race, residents here sometimes struggle to name the candidates vying for their votes.
Part of this has to do with the Aloha State’s aversion to electoral politics. A majority of residents don’t vote. And this is Puna, a place where people come to disappear.
Now with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa locked in a tight race, every vote counts, although some here can’t understand why.
Life wasn’t easy in Puna before Tropical Storm Iselle knocked out power for thousands of residents, making simple necessities such as food, water and hygiene difficult to obtain.
Unemployment is high, and nearly a third of residents live in poverty. The idea of filling out a ballot doesn’t necessarily take priority.
“I don’t think that’s people’s concern right now,” said Mona Borges. “We’re in darkness.”
Borges lives in the Hawaiian Beaches community, one of several areas devastated by Iselle last week. Her home, unlike those of some of her neighbors, was spared from falling trees.
“I can be patient. But they took my vote away from me and I’m mad.” — Lawretta Blanch, Kalapana resident
She also still has food and water. What she’s missing is electricity. Every day she gets in her car and drives several miles to a community center in Pahoa where she can charge her cell phone and her radio, two connections to the outside world.
Borges says she wanted to take her two kids and stay with family in Kona, on the other side of the island, but that she doesn’t want to leave her house. She’s worried about looters coming to steal her husband’s tools.
“Every night I wake up and there’s someone in my driveway,” she said. “I can’t leave my house. It’s kind of scary.”
Borges isn’t registered to vote, so she won’t be able to participate in Friday’s special election to decide whether it will be Schatz or Hanabusa who will serve out the remaining two years of the late-U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s term.
She admits, however, that there is something special about Puna shaping the country’s political landscape.
Both Schatz and Hanabusa have focused their campaigns on Puna after learning there might be enough votes here to sway the election one way or the other for either candidate.
Schatz currently holds a 1,635 vote advantage. There are potentially thousands of votes yet to be counted.
On Tuesday, Hanabusa readily acknowledged that people in Puna have far more immediate concerns than voting, but she said it was important to come here after the storm “to see what it’s like.”
“What we should all expect is that people will be most concerned about their families and their daily needs,” Hanabusa said. “When you don’t have water and electricity and telephones and food, when you open the fridge what can you expect. This is how people feel. They shouldn’t have to think about whether they can make it to the polls.”
Hanabusa spent her day dolloping chili and handing out bananas at an outdoor gathering place in Paradise Park where the Makuu Farmers Market is held. She was surrounded by supporters, many of whom were dressed in HanabUSA T-shirts.
Asked if she would have come here if there hadn’t been a last-minute election scramble, she replied: “I’d like to think that we would have. It’s affecting a community I have personal ties with.”
Schatz has refused to speak with the media while in Puna. On Monday, he spent the afternoon handing out food, water and ice to residents in the Nanawale Estates neighborhood, which was one of the hardest hit areas by Tropical Storm Iselle. He did the same in the Hawaiian Shores community Tuesday.
Whether any payoff results from these efforts remains to be seen. Logistics alone can make it difficult for someone in Puna to vote.
The polling place for Friday’s walk-in election is at Keonepoko Elementary School, north of Puna in the Hawaiian Beaches neighborhood. That polling place is one of two that was shut down Aug. 9 due to Tropical Storm Iselle. The other was at the Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center.
Some are worried that voters in these two precincts might still be cut off due to downed trees and power lines, although county officials are confident citizens will have a pathway to the polling place.
“What we should all expect is that people will be most concerned about their families and their daily needs.” — U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa
“Both aerial surveys and ground surveys strongly indicate that people have access at this point,” said Kevin Dayton, executive assistant to Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi. “It may not be the road they usually take, but they can get out.”
All major access roads in Puna and its subdivisions are passable, but not all side streets are cleared of debris. This includes some areas of Puna that are outside of the two precincts that will vote Friday.
Dayton said the county plans to provide shuttle service Friday to people who want to vote at Keonepoko Elementary, and that more details will be available in the coming days.
But overshadowing the preparations are a potential legal challenge from Hanabusa, who disagrees with the State Elections Office decision to conclude voting Friday in the two Puna precincts that were shut down.
There’s also concern that voters in other Big Island precincts were kept from the polls due to Tropical Storm Iselle. State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna, has been one of the most outspoken politicians on this matter, as has South Kona-Kau County Councilwoman Brenda Ford.
Lawretta Blanch feels her vote was stolen. The night the storm hit she watched as her roof pulsed from the winds and a tree crashed through her carport.
“We were trapped,” she said. “There was no way to get out.”
Blanch missed the Aug. 9 primary, something that hasn’t happened in more than 40 years. She said she’s voted every chance she’s had since she was 21. She’s 63 today.
Frustration filled her eyes with tears as she talked about the importance of going to the polls. She said it’s a fallacy that Puna is just “a bunch of hippies who don’t give a damn,” and that there are many like her who wanted to have their say in this year’s primary.
“I can be patient,” she said. “But they took my vote away from me and I’m mad.”
Civil Beat deputy editor Eric Pape contributed to this report.