A 21-page complaint filed Monday afternoon with the Hawaii Supreme Court by several dozen voters in state House District 30 alleges voter fraud, coercion and intimidation by State Rep. Romy Cachola, who won the Aug. 11 Democratic primary race by just 51 votes.
The suit, filed by 47 unidentified plaintiffs who are referred to as “Jane and John Doe Voters 1-47,” also names Scott Nago, Hawaii’s chief elections officer, as a defendant, alleging he failed to prevent voter tampering.
The complaint is premised on the surge of absentee mail-in ballots that secured Cachola the win against his Democratic primary opponent, Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden, in the fifth and final set of results released at 3 a.m. Aug. 12. It contends there was an “irregular breakdown of votes for District 30” that pushed Cachola to victory.
The race all evening was neck and neck: Cachola led Ganaden on the first and second printouts. The lead flipped in Ganaden’s favor by the third printout by a margin of 10 votes, 720 to 710. By the fourth printout, Cachola led by just 5 votes. After the final printout, he had won 920 to 869, according to the complaint.
“A suspicious and irregular submission of last-minute ‘mail in drop off’ ballots which were counted after 3:00 am the morning after the election swung the election in Cachola’s favor,” the suit alleges.
The complaint notes that Cachola’s district, which includes Mokauea, Kapalama, Kalihi Kai, the Daniel K. Inouye Airport, and sections of Pearl Harbor and Halawa, is home to many Filipino immigrants and Filipino-Americans. It alleges that as a state representative, Cachola “coerces and intimidates vote(r)s from a vulnerable population.”
The suit notes that Cachola “mingles his residence and campaign headquarters with a medical clinic run by his wife” and that he allegedly coerces the voters in his district who are also patients of the clinic to vote for him.
“Cachola uses the implicit threat of diminished healthcare to register individuals and ensure that he is voted into office,” the complaint states. “He has done this with impunity in a community with limited English proficiency that is suspicious of governmental authority and respects the practice of medicine.”
The lawsuit lists seven counts, including violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Nago was sued in his official capacity for failure to preclude tampering in an election by overseeing a system where absentee mail-in ballots can be dropped off at any polling location, absentee voters can vote in-person if claiming a lost ballot and where mail-in ballots can be counted after 3 a.m.
“We haven’t seen the complaint, we haven’t been served,” said Nedielyn Bueno, Hawaii Office of Elections spokeswoman.
Civil Beat could not reach Cachola for comment Monday.
The unidentified voters request that the matter be referred to the FBI and Hawaii State Department of Health for investigation; that the elections office conduct an investigation; that a criminal investigation be conducted by the Hawaii Attorney General’s office; and that Cachola’s name be removed from the 2018 general ballot.
It also seeks a recount of the District 30 votes.
Attorney Aaron K. Wills, who is representing the plaintiffs, told Civil Beat on Monday, “at this point, we have reason to keep (the names) under seal.”
Some, he said, were concerned about losing their medical care. According to the complaint, these voters have “a reasonable fear of possible negative repercussions if their identities are made public.”
The challenged election is a scenario that may sound familiar: in 2012, Cachola beat his primary challenger, Nicole Velasco, by 120 votes, although Velasco led on the basis of walk-in and early votes, 60 percent to 36 percent.
In this year’s primary, Ganaden also beat Cachola based on walk-in votes, including early votes, 351 to 265. Cachola won more absentee mail-in votes, 655 to 518.
A Civil Beat analysis shows that Cachola’s Democratic primary victories for the District 30 seat in 2012, 2016 and 2018 (he ran unopposed in 2014) came primarily from absentee mail-in ballots. Those ballots accounted for 70 percent of all his votes on average, placing him at the top for all candidates in any race in terms of number of mail-in votes.
The state in that same period has shown a steady uptick in numbers of absentee mail-in voting, but the average is 58 percent.
Ganaden, 37, a lawyer, writer and ethnic studies instructor at UH Manoa, and Kalihi resident, mounted a grassroots campaign against the 81-year-old Cachola.
When asked about his narrow win over Ganaden following a Kalihi-Palama neighborhood board meeting last Wednesday evening, Cachola appeared calm.
“I’m very comfortable with it,” he said in an interview. “A win is a win.”
Cachola will face off against Republican candidate Mar Velasco in the Nov. 6 general election.
The District 30 Democratic primary reflected the slimmest margin of all the state House primary races this year, based on a Civil Beat analysis.
Cachola, a longtime public official, has faced his share of controversy when it comes to campaigning and ethics over his use of finances while a Honolulu City Council member. (He was fined $50,000 for ethics violations over allegedly accepting unlawful gifts).
In 2012, a family in District 30 accused Cachola of pressuring their grandmother to fill out her primary ballot as he watched, and later taking the ballot and mailing it for her. Cachola denied engaging in any voter intimidation.
While Nicole Velasco — his 2012 primary opponent — didn’t file an elections complaint against Cachola, he was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by then-Honolulu City Council candidate Martin Han on the basis of alleged voter intimidation. The suit was ultimately dismissed by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
A bill that was introduced in the Hawaii Legislature in early 2013 proposed requiring absentee voters to affirm by signature that their ballots were completed without influence from their employer, unions or political candidates. Some referred to the proposed act as “The Romy Cachola Bill.” The language was eventually included in a Senate bill that was enacted that year.
On Wednesday, Cachola acknowledged handing out absentee ballot application forms to prospective voters in this year’s election and helping mail in completed forms.
“Sometimes if they are more or less disabled, cannot walk, (and they ask), can you just submit it or mail it? I’ll mail it,” he said. “But you know what, it’s allowed. Check with the Office of Election.”
Cachola denied watching those voters fill out their ballots.
Cachola served as a Honolulu City Council member from 2000 to 2012. He served in the state House of Representatives from 1984 to 2000 and again since 2012.
Any challenge to election outcomes in Hawaii must be filed directly to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Any candidate, political party or at least 30 voters of one election district can file a suit. The complaint “must present reasons that could cause a difference in the election results,” according to the Hawaii Office of Elections.
District 30 comprises four precincts. The majority of Cachola’s mail-in ballots in both 2018 and 2012 came from precinct 30-02, the voting location for which is Fern Elementary in Kalihi.
Mail-in ballots can be submitted on Election Day by the close of polls at 6 p.m., to any polling place that’s located within one’s county of residence. Those ballots are then sorted at the county clerk’s office, checked for signature verification, then delivered to election headquarters at the state Capitol.
Monday’s suit also alleges that Nago, as chief elections officer, oversees a statewide election system that provides room for possible vote tampering by allowing mail-in ballots to be dropped off at any polling location in that county. A lack of assigned polling place for such ballots, the suit alleges, could allow for double voting.
The defendants have five days after service in which to respond to the complaint. Four days after a response is returned, the Hawaii Supreme Court will issue judgment.
Read the Complaint:
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?