State elections officials say they will take back oversight of Election Day voting on the Big Island because problems relating to the Aug. 11 primary have not been adequately addressed.
Hawaii Chief of Elections Scott Nago said Tuesday he is rescinding state elections responsibilities that had been delegated to Big Island clerk Jamae Kawauchi.
A small group of staff members hired by the state will take over Big Island Election Day activities, according to state elections spokesman Rex Quidilla. One of them is Lori Tomczyk, the office’s Oahu-based ballot operations section head who helped out with state elections operations in Hilo on the day of the primary. Tomczyk, who has been on the job since 2000, will be filling in as lead administrator.
“We’re injecting our supervision and expertise,” said Quidilla, adding that little would actually be changing in terms of personnel. “This is something we see being done only under these current circumstances. With a great deal of hand-wringing did we come to this point. We certainly hope that this isn’t something that has to be done in the future.”
Hawaii law allows the state to assign certain responsibilities to county clerks when elections involve both state and county issues because state headquarters are located on Oahu.
“We delegate to the neighbor island counties because we’re not there,” Quidilla said.
Such responsibilities include the operation of polling places and the control center and delivery and collection of ballots at polling places. (Counties are strictly tasked with voter registration and absentee voting.)
But Kawauchi’s handling of the primary election prompted the Hawaii Office of Elections to take the unprecedented action of re-assuming the responsibilities normally given to neighbor island county clerks.
It will be identical to the system in place on Oahu, where the City and County of Honolulu clerk’s role is limited to registration and absentee voting. “We have a model that is already in place,” Quidilla said. “We know at what point we interface with county activities.”
Officials have already set up a state elections space at the Hilo State Office, where they’ll be running the control center, the central phone bank that supports telecommunications coming from the island’s 40 polling places.
Kawauchi has been at the center of a firestorm of criticism for the way she handled her elections-related duties. This is her first year running an election.
Some Hawaii County council members, including Council Chair Dominic Yagong, have been supportive of Kawauchi and have resisted calls to remove her.
Kawauchi earlier this year fired her office’s experienced elections administrator and several other staff — a move now seen as the mistake that caused later blunders.
Widespread criticism over her communication and management continued to escalate up until the primary election.
And then on the day of the primary, Aug. 11, snafus involving the delivery of supplies to Big Island polling places and botched telecommunications — all blamed on Kawauchi’s lack of leadership — resulted in the delayed opening of 13 polling places. Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an emergency proclamation allowing Hawaii County polling sites to stay open an extra 90 minutes.
The State Office of Elections released a report that blasted Kawauchi for the events before and on primary day.
Nago denounced Kawauchi for not owning up to criticisms that she had grossly mishandled her state-assigned duties.
“The County of Hawaii has never refused this delegation of responsibility or the compensation from the State and it has always said it was up to the task, even when it terminated its civil service election administrator in an election year,” wrote Nago in the report. “Instead, at all times, the County Clerk has contended that she was up to the task and that there were no problems. The State in reviewing the matter has spoken to the County Clerk several times and corresponded with her about the county’s readiness for the elections. At all times, the County Clerk had said she was prepared.”
Kawauchi responded that Nago himself had failed to communicate with her, hurting her own efforts to run a smooth election.
“I strongly disagree with the State Office of Elections and their assessment that there was failed leadership, poor planning and implementation by me on Primary Election Day,” she wrote in a press release sent out the same day as the report. “Yes there were errors that occurred on Primary Election Day. However this is not a perfect system, mistakes will be made and 100% accuracy should not be expected. Mr. Nago is being overly critical and he is failing to see that the big picture goal is to get through the elections.”
What followed was a tangle of tense exchanges, confusion over how Kawauchi would remedy the problems and failed attempts by Nago, the state Elections Commission, other county clerks and Hawaii County Councilman Dennis Onishi to troubleshoot any remaining issues.
But Kawauchi was the only county clerk absent from two commission meetings and didn’t fully participate in training workshops that Nago had organized to straighten out elections operations in time for the Nov. 6 general election.
“We did not see any qualitative improvement,” Quidilla said. “There are already established procedures, workshops. We never got a plan to see how this knowledge would roll into her planning for the election.”
He also cited “longstanding issues about the management structure in [Kawauchi’s] office” and limited communication with the media. “The media does an important job to ensure that there is confidence in the process. How would we once again accept the kind of communication we got in the primary?”
The League of Women Voters’ Hawaii Chapter has been vocal in its criticism of Big Island elections and Kawauchi, even recommending that the Elections Commission conduct an independent investigation into how the County Clerk handled her duties.
“It has proved very difficult to be working with a person who has demonstrated she doesn’t want to cooperate with the Office of Elections nor the State Elections Commission,” said LWV Hawaii State Board Vice President Janet Mason. “She would not send in a report to the commission or come to the meeting to review the conduct of the primary, so effectively they (the commission) couldn’t complete their report.”
The commission chose not to conduct the review.
Mason is still concerned that Kawauchi’s performance will discourage voters from registering or turning up at the polls but called the state’s move “positive.”
“We feel that the state is trying to restore our confidence and encourage people to vote,” she said. “The important part is that the governor’s office is recognizing that there’s a perception problem.”
Quidilla said the administrative shift won’t require any extra funding, given that the the state reimburses the counties for any state elections operations. Elections operations on the Big Island cost around $50,000, according to Quidilla.