Some Hawaii Democrats are upset that their state party has decided not to send poll watchers to observe precinct activities Saturday in the midst of contentious primary races.

State law allows parties to nominate poll watchers to see whether precinct workers are doing everything by the book. Poll watchers also have access to the list of who has voted, which allows them to notify other campaign workers if supporters of their candidate have not voted so they can be reminded to do so.

Amy Perruso, a state House District 46 candidate, tried submitting names of prospective poll workers twice because she was confused by the party’s initial denial of her request without explanation.

Hawaii Democratic Party 2018 convention held at the Hilton Waikaloa in Kona, Hawaii.
More than 200,000 Hawaii primary voters pulled Democratic ballots in 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I was surprised because the primary is the most important election for the whole state,” Perruso said. Party leadership “should be making an effort to have increased transparency.”

Kealii Lopez, the recently elected state Democratic Party chair, said the issue was brought to her attention too late. In the future, she said prospective poll watchers would be contacted earlier. The party still intends to have poll watchers at the precincts for the Nov. 6 general election.

Lopez said she didn’t see any way that the party could properly train poll watchers in just a few weeks, and didn’t want the campaigns of some Democrats to benefit more than others. Poll watchers should be looking out for the interest of all Democrats, she said, and know boundaries when it comes to interacting with poll workers and respecting voters’ privacy.

“If my job wasn’t to make sure that things are fair and equitable … then by all means, I may say, ‘Anybody who wants to participate, go at it,’” Lopez said.

Margaret Wille, chair of the Big Island branch of the Democratic Party and a Hawaii County Council member, sees things differently.

Wille said she understood that most primary races of concern are Democrats against Democrats, and that Lopez has other election-related issues to prioritize.

Still, Wille noted that Democrats face candidates of other parties in nonpartisan races — such as for county council posts. She said anybody willing to be a poll watcher should be allowed to do so.

She said she submitted names of prospective poll watchers directly to the Office of Elections, but did not receive confirmation that those people were registered.

The elections office told Civil Beat Friday that no Democratic Party poll watchers will be on duty Saturday. No new names will be added, as August 1 was the deadline to submit names.

“To say it’s not important during the primary is a little bit short-sighted because there’s sort of a bigger picture in getting” poll watchers trained for the general election, Wille said.

It’s unclear whether the Democratic Party has sent poll watchers in previous primary elections, but 80 Republican poll watchers will be on duty for the upcoming primary, according to the Office of Elections.

This will be the first year that day-of-election registration debuts statewide. Perruso said poll watchers could be useful in ensuring the process goes smoothly.

“We need to have people who are not engaged in campaigns, but are watching how the process proceeds with an evaluative eye,” she said.

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