Long lines. Disorganization and poor communication. Voters turned away.
Those are some of the criticisms that have been shared about Saturday’s presidential preference poll, where Hawaii Democrats chose Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Complaints have been posted on Civil Beat’s report on Sanders’ victory, on Twitter, via email and on the Facebook page of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. National media such as NBC shared some of the discontent in news reports.
Were things that bad?
Party Chair Stephanie Ohigashi doesn’t think so.
“I have been trying to follow up on some of these complaints, calling the county chairs,” she said. “For instance, I was told a Big Island poll closed at 1:15 p.m. and people were turned away. “But I checked with Hawaii County Chair Phil Barnes and he said, ‘No, that’s not true.’ So, with some of these things, I am not really sure if it’s just that people weren’t playing by our rules or they are just making accusations.”
Knowledge of party rules is important to understanding what happened Saturday, said Democrat Bart Dame, who coordinated the Sanders campaign locally.
“One problem we brought on ourselves is we were trying to accomplish two things on the same day,” he said. “One was the presidential preference poll and the second was the precinct organization meeting, where we elect our local officers and delegates to the state convention.”
That meant holding the polling first and the other business after. The idea was to bring new blood into the party — something that was accomplished, said Ohigashi, who noted that at least 18,000 new members were registered.
The challenge, however, was that many voters who turned out Saturday seemed to expect the private poll to run just like a state primary or general election.
“I am concerned about the complaints because it creates hostility of the party,” said Dame. “But a big part of the problem is under-educated voters. People have been spoiled by the efficiency of the Office of Elections and come expecting something similar to a government-run election.”
That resulted in situations like one that Ohigashi described: Workers at a precinct allowed the last people in line to vote and then turned to completing the balloting process and moving on to other party matters. Ten minutes later, however, a voter and her son walked up expecting to still be able to vote. But, under party rules, it was too late.
“Accusations that there was planned disenfranchisement or planned turning away of voters, I doubt very much that happened,” she said. “It was probably just a matter of miscommunication.”
Not everyone said there were problems at the polls.
Marilyn Lee said, “Our caucus in Mililani was well organized, and went fairly smoothly — thanks to the work of the district chairs, and the many volunteers who came out to help.”
Mililani extended the voting until 3 p.m., she said, “so most folks got a chance to vote. There was a crowd that was pretty much good natured.”
But Linda Morgan, who voted at the Ocean View Community Center on the Big Island, had a far different experience.
“I waited in line a half hour to get into the room, which was packed shoulder to shoulder,” Morgan said. “It was impossible to hear the directions of those in charge. It was complete chaos. Many left in frustration before voting. I waited two hours to get my ballot.”
Morgan said some participants speculated that the confusion was planned by the party establishment, which has embraced Hillary Clinton, to suppress Sanders voters. But she also observed that if that was the case, it simply didn’t work.
Sanders prevailed with 70 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 30 percent. All told, 33,716 people voted Saturday — down from the Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama matchup in 2008, when 37,273 participated. (The results were even more lopsided then, with native son Obama winning 75 percent to 24 percent.)
Still, complaints persist.
Dennis B. Miller, a Sanders supporter who was at Jefferson Elementary School near Waikiki, said, “Ballots were counted before the precinct meeting at District 34 and 35 (Aiea and Pearl City), and while other volunteers were visibly helping a trickle of newly arriving voters. Notice was not given that ballots were going to be counted.”
A few officials tried unsuccessfully to stop the counting, said Miller, but the ballots were counted anyway.
“People who were still arriving to vote were told that they were too late,” he said, adding that was the case when he left the precinct after 4 p.m.
“I feel that their precinct meetings are invalid because they were held in violation of Hawaii Democratic Party rules,” said Miller. “I feel that the precinct officers and delegates, which were elected in meetings which were held in a manner that violated party rules, are invalid. The meetings need to be held again, ASAP, because those delegates can go to the state party convention and propose changes.”
UPDATE: Miller wants to end the caucus, which technically is not a caucus in Hawaii but a presidential preference poll. Miller prefers mail-in and online voting that would replace the caucus.
“That’s important, because we’re talking about saving the party money and increasing voter participation,” he said.
Some suggest a solution to a better-run election is to hold a primary rather than a caucus.
The idea has the interest of U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, a Clinton supporter, who visited three polling sites Saturday on Oahu.
“It ran better this year than it did in 2008,” he said, noting that when they ran out of ballots in the previous election, some people voted on scraps of paper.
But Takai said the complaints “resonated” with him, and he said it might be better to hold a traditional primary instead. He said that would make Hawaii similar to Illinois and California, where people vote for president but also other offices.
Hawaii Democrats used to caucus on a Tuesday evening but switched to a Saturday at the urging of the Democratic National Committee, said Dame — the same day as party caucuses held in Alaska and Washington state.
The reason is that the state party would be awarded more delegates — 34 as opposed to 31.
Hawaii Democrats might also consult with their counterparts in Alaska on how to run a caucus.
Jake Hamburg, communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party, said the turnout surpassed the 2008 numbers, even though Alaska is considered a Republican state. Hamburg credited the turnout — 10,617 voters compared with 8,880 eight years ago — to an aggressive outreach campaign that included robocalls to party members letting them know where their caucus was.
The party also held a press availability before the election so that “everyone knew what to expect.”
Hamburg said the feedback he’s heard from Democrats in his state was a sense of “general satisfaction” about the caucus, which Sanders also won by a large margin.
“It was my first caucus and I did not know what to expect, but I walked away with a smile on my face,” he said. “It was so much fun.”
What was especially gratifying, he said, was that Democrats in the 49th state were surprised to see that there were other Democrats who turned out to vote.
“They did not know that there were this many Democrats in Alaska,” he said.
That’s something Democrats in the 50th state never have to worry about — unless it comes to wanting to vote in a Saturday caucus for president of the United States.
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