Cheaper elections not necessarily better
It’s more important to get it right than get it done cheaply, County Council members said Monday as they considered an audit that showed the 2012 election cycle cost less than elections in 2008 and 2010.
The 103-page audit found the 2012 election cost $1.5 million, compared to $1.8 million for the 2008 election, the most recent other presidential election. In 2010, when fewer voters came to the polls, the election also cost $1.5 million.
The cost per ballot cast was $17 in 2008, $16.19 in 2010 and $14.40 in 2012, the audit found.
County Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto, who managed the 2008 and 2010 elections but not the 2012 one, told the council that a number of variables affected the costs of the three election cycles, such as the cost of leasing buildings, verifying ballot initiatives and processing absentee ballots.
“Every election cycle has different costs and expenditures,” Nakamoto said. “The audit was really comparing apples to oranges.”
The audit was done as a followup of the contentious 2012 primary election, where disgruntled employees stayed home, polls opened late, precinct cellphones didn’t work properly and election materials went to the wrong districts. The problems escalated to the point that Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an emergency proclamation keeping polls open late and the state took over management of the general election that year.
The audit found inadequacy of oversight, poor communications and lack of supporting documentation for some transactions and overtime charges in both the county-run primary and state-run general elections.
Council members made their own interpretations of which costs were important and whether there was indeed a big difference between the three elections, cost-wise.
Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who represents South Kona and Ka‘u, said the fact that 2012 had an entirely new election map because of redistricting and the map was sent just 30 days prior to the election likely added to the costs. In addition, she said, a successful drive to sign up absentee voters added to printing costs in 2012.
But more important, most council members said, is that elections are run properly.
Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha said he was at one of the precincts that opened late. He said he saw people walking away rather than waiting for the poll to open, and he doubts all of them came back.
“We also want to make sure the saving of money doesn’t impact the whole election,” Kanuha said. “The 2012 election cycle was a fiasco. … It was crazy.”
He said the election “dented” public confidence.
“At the end of the day, it’s the result,” agreed Puna Mauka Councilman Zendo Kern. “We already have low election turnout. We can’t have people walking away.”
“My impression is that largely it was the politics going on, the disruptions going on, that resulted in a failure to really live up to the expectations of the public,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.
The election proceedings became a hot political issue when former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi fired Nakamoto and three other elections staff after alleging the former warehouse manager used the site to conduct his own sign-making and screen-printing business, and stored alcohol and held post-election drinking parties there.
That escalated into union grievance procedures reinstating the workers and defamation lawsuits against Kawauchi and former Council Chairman Dominic Yagong. The lawsuits were dismissed by a 3rd Circuit Court judge, but the case has been appealed.
The audit was requested by Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who had wanted an audit of just the 2012 election because he was concerned that Kawauchi’s use of Council Services Division staff would lead to overtime charges.
“Cost is very important in any election,” Nakamoto said. “Just as important is making sure that every voter has the opportunity to cast their vote on election day.”
Kawauchi could not be reached for comment by press time Monday.