HILO —More Hawaii County voters are expected to vote by mail this election, but early walk-in voting will be limited to three locations, and three small precincts won’t have a polling place at all, under changes instituted this year by the county Elections Office.
In the wake of firings, a rehiring and accusations about the readiness of her office to conduct an election, County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi held a news conference Thursday to give candidates and the media an update. Elections staff also demonstrated the county’s two types of voting machines.
Kawauchi described the Elections Office’s voter awareness campaigns that included the county’s first ever “Talk Story Tuesday” voter educational sessions held in Hilo, Kona, Ka’u, Pahoa, Honokaa and Waikoloa. More than 20 voter registration drives were also held.
She also noted educational programs being held for high schoolers, middle schoolers and elementary schoolers to begin the voter awareness process early.
Kawauchi said that as of Wednesday, more than half of all Hawaii County residents, 101,000 of a total permanent population of 184,158 people of ages, are registered to vote. That shows a high level of interest in government, she said.
“We want to create a community of people who feel included in the process of government,” Kawauchi said. “We have a very, very included population of people.”
This year, for the first time, permanent absentee ballot registration forms were mailed to all 101,000 voters who were registered to vote at the time. So far, the number of people registered to vote by mail has increased by 167 percent, from 6,400 to 17,085. Kawauchi said voters can continue sending in the absentee ballot applications as long as they reach her office by Aug. 4 for the Aug. 11 primary election. Her office expects to begin mailing out the absentee ballots on July 23.
That’s also about when voters should begin seeing the yellow voter registration cards in the mail informing them of their precincts and polling places. Kawauchi said the cards, which are usually mailed out much earlier, are later this year because of the lengthy reapportionment and redistricting processes that included litigation.
Kawauchi said the Elections Office cut two early walk-in voting locations — Pahala and Kohala — that were begun in 2010. She said the small number of voters in the two locations made it difficult to justify the personnel and resources to keep them open. The early walk-in voting locations at the West Hawaii Civic Center, Waimea Community Center and Aupuni Center in Hilo will run from July 30 to Aug. 9. The polling places will have ballots for all county voters, regardless of their precincts. They’ll be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day except Sunday, she said.
“Voters want choices,” Kawauchi said. “We provide them with as many opportunities to vote as we can.”
Three precincts — 01/09 in Hilo, 03/02 in Keaau and 03/03 in Pahoa — won’t have a polling place at all, under a new state law that creates “pocket” or “virtual” precincts for voters living in population areas of fewer than 500 voters. Absentee ballots will be mailed to those voters, who also have the option of voting early at the walk-in sites instead, she said. Kawauchi said about 2,600 voters statewide fall into this category, and fewer than 500 on the Big Island.
The county Elections Office has recently come under fire after Kawauchi fired Elections Office Administrator Pat Nakamoto, warehouse manager Glen Shikuma and two other employees following an investigation that alleged drinking, storage of alcohol and running a private business out of the county elections warehouse on Makaala Street. Nakamoto has since been reinstated after a grievance process conducted by the administration, but she has not returned to the job.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who has taken his concerns about the readiness of the office to conduct an election all the way to the state Elections Commission, was not in the room during the 1 1/2-hour update. He did not return calls placed on his office phone and cellphone Thursday afternoon.
Onishi has asked that Kawauchi brief the County Council on election readiness, but Council Chairman Dominic Yagong has rejected the request. Kawauchi said after the news conference that Thursday’s event was not in response to Onishi’s request but something long-planned to begin the 30-day countdown to the primary election.
“There never was a need for a presentation before the council,” Yagong said, “but after what we saw today I know they’ve got a real good grip on what’s going on.”