The city said it was examining voting data for any issues.
Questions are flying about the results of the recent Honolulu Neighborhood Board elections, with some people complaining they were unable to vote online because of computer glitches amid surprisingly low voter participation in areas known for high levels of civic engagement.
In Hawaii Kai, some voters reported that they were shut out from voting. In Kailua, participation fell by 50% in neighborhoods that are normally filled with avid voters. Three election observers said they were unable to watch votes getting counted at the Neighborhood Commission offices because they were told the computer system had crashed.
City administrators are investigating reports of voting irregularities. Mike Formby, the city’s managing director, said he has been discussing the issue with Lloyd Yonenaka, the neighborhood commission’s executive secretary, and also with the city’s IT department.
Paige Altonn, an anti-development advocate who has been on the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board for more than nine years, is appealing her defeat by Dylan Buck, a newcomer who is an employee of the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission, which oversees neighborhood board elections.
Altonn won only 14 votes while Buck got 17, for a total of 31 votes cast in the subdistrict. In the Portlock area where she lives, previous elections have drawn more than 100 votes.
She said it took multiple attempts to register her vote using the online voting system, which kicked her out repeatedly and that some of her neighbors and supporters also said they had found it unusually difficult to vote this year.
“I tried two different days and I couldn’t get through,” said Ann Marie Kirk of Koko Head, who said her parents, James and Jessica Kirk, had the same experience. “I ended up not voting. My parents couldn’t put their votes in as well.”
She said she called the Neighborhood Commission to report the problem but said she was told to just keep trying until her vote registered.
“They told me other people were having the same problems,” she said. “I don’t think it was a fair process.”
Another Hawaii Kai resident, Zachary Keenan, also said he gave up voting this year because the online voting portal wasn’t working. “I tried to vote but there were problems and error messages on the city website,” he said.
In an interview, Buck, who won the online election, said that he was aware some people in the Portlock neighborhood had trouble submitting their votes online. “I myself had issues, and my mom, with submitting votes,” Buck said.
He said he couldn’t access the portal on his laptop but was able to do so with his cell phone.
Buck said that people who had trouble voting could have called the commission where he works, to request a paper ballot.
Formby said information technology officials are examining voting data to identify potential issues, including looking into complaints that were brought to their attention. The software used in the online voting system was updated this year and went through multiple tests before the election began, he said. Officials are now gathering data to assess whether the modified system operated properly.
“We are committed to a fair Neighborhood Board election and an online voting system that is both accessible to our communities and accurately recording votes,” Formby said in an email.
Lower Turnout In Certain Areas
In this year’s neighborhood board election, 425 candidates vied for seats on neighborhood boards. Two-thirds of the spots were uncontested and there are only about 150 actual races.
The election was already controversial even before the first votes were cast. In an unusual new development, nine Neighborhood Commission employees, including Buck, ran for seats on neighborhood boards, raising concerns that they might not administer the election fairly.
Others said they would bring valuable expertise to the process and noted that many people who already serve on the boards are city or state employees.
Of the nine city employees, eight will soon take their seats. Four won their elections and four were victorious because their elections were uncontested. Only one, Lindon Valenciano, was not elected.
Voter turnout also appears to have been significantly down in some areas.
Accurate tracking of turnout is complicated by the fact that many communities don’t participate in any given year.
For that reason in 2023, residents of the McCully-Moiliili neighborhood, Aliamanu/Salt Lake/Foster Village/Airport, Kalihi-Palama, Aiea, Waipahu, Waimanalo and Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley did not receive information on online voting in the mail.
In some places only parts of the neighborhood participate in the election while others do not. In Kailua, for example, residents of subdistrict 2, which includes Enchanted Lake, did not vote because they had no competitive races.
Four candidates — Bill Hicks, Amber K.E. Granite, Kelli Ann Kobayashi and Shawna Moeschler — ran without challengers.
Hicks, who chairs the Kailua board, noticed some aberrations this year. He said that voter participation in subdistrict 3, Olomana and Maunawili, and in subdistrict 4, which includes the older parts of Kailua from Coconut Grove to Kalaheo, fell by half from the normal levels.
“It is very unusual that subdistricts 3 and 4 had only half of what they historically had, going back to 2015,” Hicks said. “It is very peculiar.”
The top vote-getter in subdistrict 3, Donna Wong, received 186 votes this year, while the top vote-getter in that same district in 2021 got 323 votes, he said. Carol Miyashiro of subdistrict 4 got 333 votes this year but the leading candidate in 2021 got 756. In subdistrict 1 the top candidate, Levani Lipton, got 236 votes, compared to a previous average for that seat of about 297 votes, he said.
“The 2023 vote was the lowest in any election since 2013 for all three subdistricts,” Hicks said. “Why?”
The election results were tallied in late May. Charmaine Doran of the Pearl City board and Bob Armstrong and Kevin Lye of the Downtown/Chinatown board said they went to the neighborhood commission offices at Kapalama Hale on May 30 to watch the count.
They said they observed the processing of a small number of paper ballots but they were unable to confirm the electronic results. They said they waited several hours but were eventually told to leave because the technical problems could not be quickly resolved.
“The servers were not communicating,” Lye said, adding that a city information technology worker was “frantically and furiously” trying to resolve the issues.
“They said they were having technical difficulties,” Doran said, adding that she was not sure if the system was broken or if officials were unwilling to share the information. “The system is not conveying trust.”
When the results were posted June 1, Hawaii Kai residents were surprised when they saw how few people seemed to have voted in that area given the high degree of past civic engagement there.
“I can’t believe our constituents would be so apathetic,” said Rep. Gene Ward, who represents District 17, Hawaii Kai and Kalama Valley, in the Legislature. “This is flawed, skewed. They need to run it again.”
Altonn said she has been told there is a seven-day time limit for filing an election appeal and that she needs to collect 30 signatures to proceed. She said she would not pursue the issue if she thought the election had been handled fairly.
“There is something wrong,” she said. “I don’t mind losing if it’s a reliable election but there is something wrong with this.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.