Plans to open a polling place Friday for two storm-damaged precincts in Puna were moving ahead Tuesday despite a threat of a legal challenge from U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and criticism from other politicians and both major political parties.
Rex Quidilla, state Office of Elections spokesman, said letters notifying residents in precincts covering Hawaiian Paradise Park, Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Shores of the plan were expected to be put in the mail Tuesday, and Hawaii County staff were placing banners advertising the election in the communities.
But the state also faces growing criticism from several representatives and community members who say the residents, who still face power outages nearly a week after Tropical Storm Iselle, need more time to recover and be notified.
That includes Hanabusa, who said Tuesday the state’s plan does not reflect the reality on the ground.
“It’s just amazing the extent of damage,” she said.
Hanabusa, who is trailing Sen. Brian Schatz by 1,635 votes in the Senate Democratic primary, said she was anticipating filing a lawsuit today seeking to postpone voting for precincts 04-01 and 04-02. The state plans to consolidate voting for the precincts, closed during Saturday’s primary due to storm damage, at the Keonepoko Elementary School on Friday, and announce the results that night.
Hanabusa also sent a letter Tuesday to Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago requesting the election be further delayed for the two precincts. She also asked that two polling places in lower Puna be reopened to accommodate other voters who couldn’t make it to the polls because of the storm.
“I ask that you not rush for the sake of convenience,” she wrote. “… The Hawaii statue allows for a period of twenty-one days in which to conduct this postponed election. Please use this time to put the needs of the Puna residents ahead of the election.”
A Schatz spokeswoman said Tuesday, “Senator Schatz is working to help Puna residents get back on their feet. The independent nonpartisan experts at the Office of Elections and the County Clerk from Hawaii Island are in a far better position to evaluate how to proceed with this election than anyone else.”
Quidilla said the goal of the elections office is to “bring a finality to the primary election,” adding the County Clerk’s Office and other state agencies were consulted about the plan.
He said the office tried to open two polling places for Friday but was unable to secure the Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center as a location.
In the letter, Hanabusa also requests Nago receive “independent legal counsel” other than state Attorney General David Louie, who she claimed was seen at Schatz’s campaign headquarters on election night.
Both candidates arrived in Puna on Sunday following the too-close-to-call primary to assess damage and meet with residents.
The state’s decision to close the two precincts for the primary while leaving others in lower Puna open also prompted criticism from Hanabusa and others who say the storm depressed voter turnout.
“No one should be denied the most basic American right to vote,” South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford said in a complaint to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.
An analysis of Election Day precinct turnout shows an 11.5 percent turnout at Keaau High School, a 12 percent turnout at Pahoa Community Center and a 12.3 percent turnout at Pahoa High and Intermediate School. Mountain View Elementary School had a 14.3 percent turnout, and Cooper Center in Volcano had a 20.9 percent turnout, according to data compiled by the state Office of Elections.
State Rep. Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, said she doesn’t believe the vote can be considered an adequate record.
“No one is thinking about voting,” she said. “Really, they are trying to take care of their families as best they can.”
House District 4, which she represents, includes both the closed precincts and two others in lower Puna that remained open but had low turnout.
As of Saturday, Hanohano was trailing behind Joy San Buenaventura in the race’s Democratic primary, 260 votes to 558 votes.
San Buenaventura said she wasn’t objecting to holding the vote Friday, and added she planned to help drive voters to the poll.
“My position is right now I got to work with what I got,” she said.
“If the elections officer says this is what’s going to happen, then I’m going to try to get as many voters to the voting booth Friday as I can.”
Hele-On was also working on a special route to help voters get to the poll, said County Clerk Stewart Maeda.
Pat Saiki, Hawaii Republican Party state chair, also called on election officials to delay the vote “until Puna residents have access to basic necessities.”
The state Democratic Party was drafting a letter raising objections to the plan, according to David Tarnas, Hawaii County Democratic Party chairman.
“I am appalled at the clear violations of the voting rights of the people of Puna,” he said. “We must object. We have to object.”
The County Council District 4 race also includes the affected precincts.
Council member Greggor Ilagan is leading with 346 votes in the four-person race. He could not be reached for comment.
Roy Lozano, who is in second with 234 votes, said he is also upset with the way the state is handling the election.
“Whoever is in charge for this … they are not sending representatives down to take a look,” he said.
Stephens Media Hawaii reporter Nancy Cook Lauer contributed to this report.
Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaii tribune-herald.com.