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Nago under fire: State’s chief elections officer draws criticism from Ruderman, others

August 20, 2014 - 12:05am

Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago will likely be in the hot seat Friday as the state Elections Commission takes a look back at this month’s primary.

The review is held following each election, but the commission is expecting to hear an earful of complaints surrounding the response to Tropical Storm Iselle and for the discovery of about 800 misplaced ballots on Maui following voting Aug. 9.

State Sens. Russell Ruderman and Sam Slom have also called for Nago’s resignation, according to media reports.

Elections Commission Chairman Bill Marston said he expects a strong turnout for the public comment period but added as of Tuesday the commission was not planning any action. He said he was reserving judgment until after hearing from Nago and the public.

“We’ll determine that on Friday after we hear the chief election officer talk about these instances,” Marston said.

Ruderman, D-Puna, said he will speak at the meeting in Honolulu, and he plans to file a complaint with the state Office of Elections regarding the decision to postpone voting for only two Puna precincts following the storm.

The Associated Press and Honolulu Star-Advertiser both reported Ruderman was requesting Nago be replaced.

Ruderman took a softer approach in an interview with Stephens Media Hawaii but maintained his criticism.

“I don’t want to be the person to decide whether he should keep his job or not,” he said.

“I think when all these things go wrong in an organization some things should change.”

Nago also faced criticism for holding a postponed primary for two precincts last Friday at Keonepoko Elementary School after initially announcing voters there would be mailed ballots.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who lost narrowly to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in the Senate Democratic primary, tried unsuccessfully in court to further delay the vote. She argued it shouldn’t occur while residents were still recovering from the tropical storm.

An Elections spokesman said last week the office was assured no residents there were blocked in their homes and that they could get to the poll.

Nago told the Associated Press he would not have done anything differently.

“We followed the law on this one,” he said.

Ruderman, who was not facing re-election this year, said the decision to postpone voting for only some of the storm-damaged precincts disenfranchised voters and had an impact on the results.

For instance, he said the Puna makai County Council race could have gone to a runoff in the General Election if voters in one lower Puna precinct were able to vote last Friday rather than Aug. 9, a day after the storm made landfall and caused widespread damage in the area.

Greggor Ilagan, the incumbent, won with about 54 percent of the vote. Any council candidate with a majority of votes in the primary does not face a runoff in the General Election.

Roy Lozano came in second with about 19 percent.

Before the postponed primary was held for two precincts mostly covering Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Shores and Hawaiian Beaches, Ilagan received about 39.5 percent of the vote. Lozano received nearly 27 percent.

While he held a strong lead, Ilagan’s vote total at that point wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff in the four-person race.

“In a nutshell, Ilagan’s neighborhood voted and in the first turnout, Lozano’s neighborhood didn’t vote,” Ruderman said. “His neighborhood was blocked.”

Initially, Ruderman said he was going to seek an election challenge to provide more time for voting in lower Puna. He said Tuesday he stopped pursuing that option after Lozano chose to let the results stand.

There were three voting precincts affecting that race. One covering Leilani Estates, Nanawale Estates, Pohoiki and Kapoho, did not have voting postponed.

Ilagan, who could not be reached for comment, received 303 votes on primary day Aug. 9 and through absentee voting in that precinct. Lozano received 227 votes.

Nago also faced criticism in 2012 when several polling places on Oahu ran short of paper ballots during the General Election.

He was in the spotlight earlier that year for wrangling with then-Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi following the botched primary rollout that saw about a dozen polling places open late on the Big Island.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.