It was an election fraught with problems: election items were misdelivered, about a dozen polling places opened late, and an embattled county clerk struggled to keep it all on track.
The 2012 primary was a low point in Hawaii County’s election history, resulting in statewide results being pushed back 90 minutes and the state taking over the county’s duties for the general election.
It’s a day no election planner wants to see repeated, and the county’s senior election official said some adjustments have been made with its game plan for the Aug. 9 primary.
Those changes include returning a full-time elections staff person to West Hawaii, a position removed in 2012, said county Election Program Administrator Pat Nakamoto, who was on leave that year following a labor dispute.
There will also be two district coordinators serving Kona rather than one, and three more election day troubleshooters, serving Hilo, Kona and Hamakua districts.
“I looked at some of the most common problems that occurred,” she said. “We are trying to find ways to as best as possible try to avoid the same problems.”
Overall, there isn’t a need for a major overhaul, according to state and county election officials, who believe the problems in 2012 were caused by poor management and an inexperienced staff.
“Last [election], it was a little different,” said Scott Nago, state chief election officer.
“There was different characters, an inexperienced elections administrator, a new clerk, a lot of turnover in staff in the elections division.”
Nakamato was part of that turnover.
In January 2012, then-County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi fired her and three other workers after an investigation reportedly found alcohol and privately-owned sign making equipment in the elections warehouse, and that post-election parties with alcohol had occurred there.
Any loss of experience was compounded on election day when more than half of the permanent election division staff, including the acting administrator, called in sick.
Following their termination, a union grievance process saw Nakamato and two other workers reinstated. Nakamoto returned from paid leave in December 2012, following the end of Kawauchi’s time as county clerk.
Another terminated employee, warehouse manager Glen Shikuma died that year.
Following the primary-day problems, Nago in a rare move put the state in charge of all general election preparations on the island, bypassing Kawauchi, who responded with her own criticism at the state for a response she saw as heavy-handed.
State Elections Commission Chairman Bill Marston said that was Nago’s decision to make.
“I don’t recall there being objections” from the commission, he said. “After all, he is the chief election officer and he will run the election.”
Marston said he isn’t aware of any problems surfacing prior to the primary, and expressed confidence in the county going forward.
“Everything seems to be in order,” he said.
Nago saw his own debacle during the general election, when at least 19 polling places on Oahu ran short of paper ballots.
He said that issue has been addressed ahead of this year’s election, and he also believes the county will have its house in order during the primary.
“This year, it went back to 2010 I would say,” said Nago, who wrangled with Kawauchi in 2012.
Now back at her job, Nakamoto, who has over 25 years of experience with the county, said the county doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to running an election.
In general, she said, “We are basically going to go back and do things the way we did it every year prior to 2012.”
Nakamoto emphasized preparation and experience when it comes to preventing or addressing issues as they arise on election day.
“I think the key to the success of our election is being certain that all of our volunteers, all of our employees are trained and trained properly,” she said.
As of early July, training was ongoing for precinct officials, control center staff, delivery collection teams, and for facility officials responsible for setting up polling places, Nakamoto said.
Counting center training has been completed, she said, as well as programming of phones for election workers, which was an issue that arose election day 2012.
Nakamoto also noted her office of six permanent staff members is short one clerk.
She said duties and training have been spread to other workers to pick up the slack.
“We hired temporary election clerks earlier,” she said as a result. “We trained them to do specific tasks.”
The elections division also has a new boss this time around, County Clerk Stewart Maeda.
Maeda said he feels his staff will be prepared for the “big game.”
“It was preparation from day one of this new term,” he said. “And it’s been consistent preparation all the way through.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.