U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said Tuesday that she is considering legal action to stop Friday’s scheduled election on the Big Island.
Speaking by telephone from Puna, where two polling precincts were closed the day before the Aug. 9 primary, Hanabusa said voters in District 4 are being disenfranchised by the state Elections Office.
“One of the things that became very obvious to me — I’ve been here since Sunday — is that the accessibility issue is amazing,” she said. “You could not access these communities. They can’t come out. … And, after that, to realize that Elections Office actually called it for this Friday, I could not understand why they would do that.”
The Elections Office announced Monday that the vote will be held at Keonepoko Elementary School, one of the two Puna polling sites that were closed.
Hanabusa, an attorney, objects to what she calls the “disparate treatment” of Puna residents by the Elections Office. She is in consultation with her legal team to possibly file a lawsuit with the Hawaii Supreme Court before Friday, which is a state holiday.
“You can’t let this happen,” she said, referring to the election. “Every vote should count.”
Hanabusa is locked in a tight race against U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who leads her by just 1,635 votes out of about 230,000 cast in the Democratic primary.
A spokeswoman for the Schatz campaign said Tuesday, “Senator Schatz is working to help Puna residents get back on their feet. The independent nonpartisan experts at the Office of Elections and the County Clerk from Hawaii Island are in a far better position to evaluate how to proceed with this election than anyone else.”
Still, Hanabusa’s concern is among a growing number of complaints from elected officials and party leaders objecting to the plan for Friday’s vote.
Also on Tuesday, Pat Saiki, chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party, called on the Office of Elections to delay the planned election until Puna residents have access to basic necessities.
“Instead of the Office of Elections forcing residents to turn from rebuilding their lives to head to the polls, the state should be focusing all of its efforts on providing these victims with basic necessities like food, water and electricity,” she said in a press release. “To think a family whose home and property has been ruined in the wake of Iselle must put the Democrat primary ahead of their problems is a shame.”
State Rep. Faye Hanohano, who trails fellow Democrat Joy Sanbuenaventura in Hanohano’s re-election bid, also questions the timing of the election. She said the announcement of the election came as a surprise to many candidates.
“Why are they making it harder for my constituents to vote?” said Hanohano, whose District 4 represents Puna. “Don’t they realize most of these families have no power, no water, and no information on where or when to vote? Over 8,000 homes are without power and many roads are still being cleared by Civil Defense.”
Hanohano added, “Basic human health and safety needs come first and postponing the vote will not jeopardize one life, but leaving basic needs unmet could endanger many and will unnecessarily place my constituents in harm’s way. That is intolerable and unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Tuesday that South Kona-Kau County Councilwoman Brenda Ford and state Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat who represents Puna, say voters in other Big Island precincts had trouble getting to the polls because of the storm, too.
According to the Elections Office, the primary precinct turnout statewide — the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots at traditional polling places — was 18 percent compared with just 14.2 percent in Hawaii County. Maui’s precinct turnout was 14.12 percent, Kauai’s was 19 percent and the City and County of Oahu’s was 19.4 percent.
Asked about the complaints, Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said Tuesday, “We made a decision on the election for Puna after consulting with the Hawaii County Clerk’s Office, the attorney general and Civil Defense. We were notified that the roads are in fact open, that access has been restored.”
Quidilla said the decision to close two of the four Puna precincts was not an easy one.
“We were faced with a short timeline that quite frankly made the decision very difficult,” he said.
Quidilla added that Scott Nago, the chief elections officer, was advised by Attorney General David Louie that Nago “does not have legal authority to expand beyond the election those polling places that were postponed prior to Saturday’s election.”
Hanabusa said things are far worse in Puna than many may realize, making it very difficult for many people to get to the polls Friday. Flying by helicopter over the area Monday, Hanabusa said she was struck by just how large Puna is — it’s about the size of Oahu — and that the devastation included inaccessible roads, lots of downed trees and houses washed off their foundations.
“Paradise Park, in 04-01, for example, they are beginning to restore power in that area, but you still don’t have phone or TV or anything else,” she said, referring to one of the two affected precincts. “Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Shores in 04-02, the main roads may be cleared, but the side roads are still unacceptable. And you still have the issues of water and electricity.”
Hanabusa believes that the election could be held sometime before Aug. 30, which is 21 days from the primary and the deadline by which the state has to hold the election. By that time, she said, many services could be restored and more people would be able to exercise their voting right.