Here’s a riddle: How is the Hawaii voter recount law like the new Hawaiian Telcom phone book?

Answer: Both are pieces of junk that have just landed with a big thud.

The phone book is as useless as Mike Pence in an improv group. The same goes for the state’s recount law, as the Hawaii Supreme Court’s convoluted and torturously long adventures with the election challenges of Tommy Waters and Matt Lopresti demonstrate.

But here is another riddle: What’s the difference between the phone book and the recount law?

Answer: The people who create the phone book want it to be used. The recount law was created to keep people from using it.

Wrapped up in legal procedure and legalistic language, it provides obstacles rather than opportunities.  It builds a wall.

Supreme Court. Aliiolani Hale. Supreme Court justices hear arguments from Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center and Deputy Corporation Counsel Duane Pang. 1 june 2017

Hawaii’s ungainly election recount law is resulting in the state’s final election result unfolding ever so slowly at the Supreme Court.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

About That Phone Book

“Throw it away,” my wife said last week before I even brought in the new Hawaiian Telcom 2019 directory that had just thumped onto our sidewalk. 

As a writer in Slate put it, new phone books are now regularly “left to pulp out in the rain and abandoned in mountainous mailroom piles.”

Why? Because the phone book doesn’t give you phone numbers, at least the ones you really need. There are no cell phone listings. That is prohibited by law.

Social media has become a much better and available source of information in all kinds of ways for all sorts of reasons.

Besides, those paper behemoths are such a colossal waste of resources. Factoid: it took almost 50,000 trees to produce the 2008 Portland directory. And phone books are hard to recycle.

A number of cities discourage phone book mass production. Verizon in New York City has pretty much discontinued producing them.

The Recount Law Is Worse

The recount law is more cumbersome and irrelevant than the phone book.

The law is also a huge devourer of natural resources, but in this case the resources are people rather than trees, and time rather than paper.

You want cumbersome? Consider what’s happened with the recent challenges.

Voters cast their vote at Farrington High School.

Hawaii voters cast their general election ballots Nov. 6 or earlier, but they still don’t know for sure who won a certain Honolulu City Council race.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lopresti was behind in his state Senate race and Waters in his Honolulu City Council race Nov. 6 by margins of less than 1 percent. Both took their cases to the Supreme Court.

The court has denied Lopresti’s request, but it took eight weeks. The 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election controversy was settled in half that time.

And the Waters case is ongoing, preventing the Honolulu City Council from beginning the new year with a full complement of members.

The phone book is unwieldly, but at least using it depends on a simple formula, which of course is the alphabet — Milner comes before Zilner.

The voter law also uses the ABC’s as its guide, but here ABC stands for “Anything But a Challenge.”

Hawaii’s voter recount law’s basic problem is that from the beginning it turns a simple math issue into a convoluted, inaccessible legal one.

States with automatic recount laws make it initially simple and automatic. If the margin of victory is extremely close, typically within 1 percent, there is a recount. It’s based on your old algebra teacher’s still valuable adage: “check your work.”

And that’s it. No questions asked, nothing about proof of corruption or malfeasance. No lawyers — of which, by the way, there are 46 pages of listings in the new phone book — are needed.

Hawaii’s law requires a petition to the Hawaii Supreme Court to ask for a recount.

Hoo ha, a petition! And the petitioner has to, as the statute says, “set forth causes” for granting it.

I’m pretty sure that when us ordinary folks ask someone why they did something, we don’t ask them to “set forth causes.”

But you’re in Legal Land now, baby, where things get messy, convoluted and wasteful, as the process takes you down a deep, dark tunnel.

States with automatic recount laws make it initially simple and automatic. If the margin of victory is extremely close, typically within 1 percent, there is a recount. It’s based on your old algebra teacher’s still valuable adage: “check your work.”

Don’t blame the court. It’s doing what the law requires.

The petition puts the person (now officially the petitioner) in an adversarial situation because in effect he or she is blaming someone for messing up. That’s what “set forth causes” means.

And your adversaries, say the county clerk’s office or the state Office of Elections, are going to do what any rival side in a legal case does — delay, cooperate as little as possible, and mount a full-on legal defense.

Meanwhile, the votes don’t get recounted because everyone is arguing over whether they should even be recounted.

Look, even a no-fault recount could ultimately turn into a big-deal legal case if a dissatisfied losing candidate wants to claim malfeasance.That is what is happening right now with the contested North Carolina congressional election, but that one is exceptional.

But an automatic, publicly funded recount law is an easy first step. And it shows respect for government accountability rather than fear of citizen disruption.

Leave It Out To Pulp

In 1906, Jews in Trenton, New Jersey threatened to boycott Bell Telephone over a resort listing’s promise, “Free From Hebrews and Tuberculosis Patients.”

Times change. Ads like that have disappeared. In fact over the years the phone book has adjusted to changing times. And it’s ironic that the next such adjustment will be the phone book’s demise.

As for the recount law’s adjustment to changing times, we should be so lucky. And maybe we will be.   Last session the state Senate passed an automatic recount law, but the House took no action.

It’s time to abandon the recount law and leave it to pulp out in the rain.

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