HILO — The state Office of Elections issued a report Thursday highly critical of Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi’s handling of the primary election.
The six-page document references “poor planning, implementation and leadership” in a blunt assessment of the clerk’s first election, which saw 13 polling places on the Big Island open late. That caused Gov. Neil Abercrombie to order voting on the Big Island to be extended by 90 minutes Saturday, leading to delayed results across the state.
State elections officials began their investigation immediately after meeting with Kawauchi in Hilo on Tuesday, said Rex Quidilla, head of state Voters Services Section with the Office of Elections.
The clerk was unable to say how many polling places opened late or adequately explain what caused the delays, though she said she was working on it, Quidilla said. Not satisfied, the state office decided to take matters into its own hands and gathered the information itself.
It was not a hard task.
That day, the state office “took custody” of the record books listing when the polling places opened and followed that up with interviews with precinct chairpersons to fill in blank spots, Quidilla said.
“She had it for two whole days,” he said, adding the office remains perplexed as to why Kawauchi didn’t provide the documents.
“There was already information that she had that she would be capable of providing.”
Kawauchi couldn’t be reached for comment.
County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong said he didn’t know why she didn’t provide that information, but he noted he urged her to verify the opening times of the polling places before reporting that information to the council.
He said he could not comment on the report without reading it.
Of the 13 polling places to open late, nine opened at least 10 minutes after their scheduled 7 a.m. start. Two opened at 8:40 a.m.
Quidilla said the delayed openings were caused by “errors” with the delivery of election materials, that can include poll books, ballots, correction orders and voting machines.
“What we’re finding is the launch point in Kona was not organized,” he said.
Yagong said the problems in West Hawaii, where the longest delays occurred, began when the precinct cans containing ballots and poll books for Waikoloa were misdelivered to the West Hawaii Civic Center.
But before staff could drive the cans to their correct location, it was also discovered that several of the precinct cans for Kona Vistas Center, Kahakai Elementary School and Kona Palisades Community Center were left behind at the Civic Center.
Concerned about their security, Deputy Clerk Steve Lopez took those with him when he went to deliver the Waikoloa cans and finished the other deliveries on his way back.
“It was an absolute domino effect,” Yagong said.
The report, while stating the public’s confidence was “unnecessarily undermined” by election day mishaps, concluded that they “do not rise to the level of changing the election results.”
Precinct turnout at the affected polling places matched the islandwide average of 20 percent, possibly helped by the extension of voting hours.
The polls that opened at least 10 minutes late averaged the same turnout, while the two that opened 100 minutes late — Kona Vistas Recreation Center and Kahakai Elementary School — had some of the lowest election day turnouts at 17.4 percent and 14.4 percent.
The Big Island had two close primary races, each with delayed poll openings.
The Democratic primary for state Senate District 4 saw Malama Solomon win by 69 votes.
Four of the 18 polls in that district opened late, with one, Kona Palisades Community Center, opening at 7:53 a.m.
Solomon’s opponent, Lorraine Inouye, said she is still considering a legal challenge to the state Supreme Court.
“They (voters) should be concerned,” Inouye said.
In the state House District 6 race, Nicole Lowen won the Democratic primary by an even closer margin — 45 votes.
That district had two of its five polls open late, including Kona Palisades.
The other, Kahakai Elementary School, opened at 8:40 a.m.
Kalei Akaka, who finished second, is still considering her options, said a friend, Elisa Yadao.
Quidilla said the state office looked at the “whole picture,” including the extension of polling hours, when it stated it does not have sufficient evidence to show the mishaps could have changed the election outcome.
Only the state Supreme Court can overturn election results.
Quidilla said the state office doesn’t believe it could have done more to prevent the election day problems, even though it heard concerns about the county’s readiness.
Most of those concerns centered around the loss of experienced staff, including the firing of Pat Nakamoto, the elections office administrator, last January.
Nakamoto, and two other county Elections Office employees, were fired following an investigation that alleged drinking, storage of alcohol and running a private business out of the county elections warehouse.
Nakamoto was reinstated through a union grievance process but remains on indefinite paid leave.
Just before the primary, acting Administrator Arlene Boteilho and one other civil service employee went on sick leave, Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi said last week.
Onishi has been keeping tabs on the office due to his concern it wouldn’t be ready for the election.
Yagong said he also heard that Boteilho and another employee were on sick leave.
Nakamoto has deep ties to the state office, and is in a live-in relationship with former state Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina, according to former County Clerk Ken Goodenow.
Yoshina was the boss of Scott Nago, the current state elections officer.
Quidilla said that had nothing to do with the harsh criticism of Kawauchi.
“That is completely irrelevant,” he said, “to the issues that face the County of Hawaii.”
As of the county’s readiness, Quidilla said, “We were constantly assured (by Kawauchi) that training issues were corrected, that everything was in line.
“We have to rely on the chief election officer of that county.”
He said the state office told Kawauchi to ask for help if she needed it.
On election day, the office sent a staff member to supervise Hawaii County’s primary.
Onishi said he would have like the state to have done more before the primary.
“I’m disappointed basically,” he said. “To me they are supposed to be the ones to oversee” the process.
Onishi had requested that the council discuss problems facing the county Elections Office, which Kawauchi oversees, before the election.
Yagong, who Kawauchi reports to, denied the request and asked Onishi to submit specific concerns.
Onishi said he didn’t offer anything specific, adding he was looking for a general discussion so that the council could ask Kawauchi questions.
He said he “didn’t want to fight this battle” with Yagong.
Yagong said it would have been inappropriate for the council, with several of its members running for election, to interfere with the Elections Office.
He said the focus is now on preventing the same issues from occurring during the Nov. 6 general election.
Yagong has scheduled a council meeting at 10 a.m. Monday in Hilo to discuss the primary election.