The U.S. Senate Democratic primary battle between Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa could be decided Friday as election officials open a polling place for voters of two storm-damaged precincts in Puna.
The state Office of Elections said voters in precincts 04-01 and 04-02 can cast ballots from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. at Keonepoko Elementary School. Results will be announced that night, and voters in line at 6 p.m. will be allowed access.
Polls at the school and Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center were closed for the Saturday primary election since roads around them were impassable because of damage from Tropical Storm Iselle.
Initially, the office planned to send absentee ballots by mail to the affected voters. But Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said the agency is choosing to hold voting at the school to wrap up the election more quickly.
There are 8,269 registered voters in the two precincts, 1,448 of whom voted absentee or at walk-in sites prior to Saturday, according to County Clerk Stewart Maeda. That leaves 6,821 voters who could cast a ballot later this week.
Schatz has a lead of 1,635 votes against Hanabusa.
Both candidates arrived Sunday to campaign and assist with relief efforts.
In response to the announcement from the state, Hanabusa’s campaign manager, Peter Boylan, said they are reviewing “all legal options at this time.”
“It is disappointing that the state Office of Elections reversed course and decided to hold walk-in voting on Friday,” he said in an email. “A lot of voters in those two precincts are without power and water and many of the roads are blocked with debris, isolating large pockets of the community. It is unrealistic to think people struggling to find basic necessities and get out of their homes will have the ability to go to the polls Friday.”
Hawaii County Public Works Director Warren Lee said Sunday he was aiming to have all roads clear and debris removed by the weekend.
Quidilla said the office was assured by the county that roads would be cleared in time for voting.
He said a notification will be mailed to voters.
Asked for a response to the statement, Schatz said, “I think the Hanabusa campaign should focus on allowing the people to recover and not their own political endeavours.”
Lower Puna communities Nanawale Estates, Leilani Estates and Kapoho are not included in the two precincts.
Polling places for those communities were open Saturday in Pahoa, though many residents still were trying to get much needed supplies and few appeared to be going to the polls.
Quidilla said his agency made its decision to close only the polls at Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center and Keonepoko Elementary School based on the information it had Friday.
He said the office does not have the authority to reopen polls that weren’t closed on election day.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, said the state’s decision is leaving many voters in lower Puna out of the process.
“I’m very concerned about the large unfairness happening right now,” he said. “Those who would have voted in Pahoa are equally affected.”
Hanabusa, who faces a statistical longshot to overcome Schatz’s lead, also raised that issue in an interview.
She said she viewed storm damage Sunday with volunteers delivering supplies in Nanawale Estates and flew over the area Monday in a helicopter.
“When I went here, I found people felt they were disenfranchised,” Hanabusa said. “They really couldn’t get out.”
Schatz said he shares those concerns but wasn’t sure of a recourse for those voters.
He said Monday his campaign delivered 9,000 pounds of ice, about 40 gallons of chili, and other supplies to Nanawale Estates residents.
Hanabusa said her campaign also is coordinating supplies.
“We have some water … We are going to be distributing that as quickly” as possible, she said.
Schatz said he also is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on expediting a disaster declaration.
He said he was in contact with his Big Island staff regarding storm relief prior to the primary.
Tribune-Herald reporter Colin M. Stewart contributed to this report.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.