HILO —The state Office of Elections is sending an employee to help make sure Saturday’s primary election runs smoothly, a spokesman said Thursday.
The state employee will work in the counting center in Hilo, said spokesman Rex Quidilla. He said the state decided to send a worker after learning the Hawaii County Elections Office didn’t have an experienced employee to oversee the counting center. It’s not a common practice, but it’s not unheard of, he said.
“We’re sending someone to assist, to make sure the process goes well,” Quidilla said.
The county office went through another series of staff upheavals Wednesday, but Quidilla said Thursday the office has been reassured that County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi is “ahead of the curve” and ready for Saturday’s primary election.
Acting Administrator Arlene Boteilho and one other civil service staffer went on sick leave until after the primary, and a temporary staffer resigned, said Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who’s been keeping tabs on the office. Boteilho had replaced fired Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto, who’s been reinstated after a union grievance proceeding but remains on paid leave.
“They’re losing experienced people that have run elections before. They lost manpower. Now they’re going to bring in people who are inexperienced,” Onishi said. “I’m hoping for the best. I’m hoping that things work smoothly on Saturday. But just looking at the past couple of weeks — it’s crazy.”
Kawauchi declined to discuss personnel matters, but confirmed that the administrator and an employee are “no longer at their desks.” She said employees have been cross-trained to perform other functions and reiterated the office is ready to go.
Quidilla said state officials always have a certain level of concern about every election as the deadline nears. But a “very productive” telephone conversation with Kawauchi helped reassure the state.
“(Kawauchi) gave detailed responses to our very specific operational questions,” Quidilla said. “She anticipated a lot of these different issues. … She was able to provide answers to every single question that was posed to her. … She seems to be ahead of the curve, and we’re glad to hear that everything’s under control there.”
Elections workers have had to make the adjustment to a more hands-on boss since Kawauchi fired Nakamoto in January and began taking a more active role overseeing the office. Her rigorous attention to detail and perfectionism unearthed problems with the voter registry, including indications of duplication in the rolls and five people who voted twice in the 2010 elections.
But as she enters her first election, Kawauchi has stumbled at times, creating rules and then changing them, and not always keeping the media and the state up to date.
Kawauchi has driven herself and her staff hard, and it showed in the faces of her top managers Wednesday as she held a meeting with them in the County Council chambers. West Hawaii Today did not go into the meeting, but body language said a lot. Many workers were frowning, their arms crossed across their chests, their eyes downcast.
“She is erratic,” said Odetta Shimoza, a contracted temporary worker who was staffing the Kona office until her termination over the weekend. “Every day she changes the rules.”
Kawauchi said Thursday that the staff may have appeared downcast because of all the media attention focused on the office.
“There’s a lot of things in the media right now,” Kawauchi said. “They want to do a good job, so when they see these things … I’m trying to allow the workers to get their work done without having to worry about being in the newspaper.”
She said morale is generally positive, however.
“They’re prepared, and they’re ready to go,” she said.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong was also praising election workers Thursday. He said voters coming in to the Hilo office have been dropping off cards and little treats to show their appreciation.
“It was just wonderful to me to hear these stories from Elections,” Yagong said. “There are a lot of people that are really working their tails off and that’s getting lost in the shuffle.”