By NANCY COOK LAUER
The state will take over operations of the Nov. 6 General Election in Hawaii County, state Chief Election Officer Scott Nago announced Tuesday.
The move follows a troubled primary election when several polling places opened late and Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued a proclamation keeping Hawaii County polls opened an additional 90 minutes to make up for it. In all, 13 of Hawaii County’s 40 polling places opened late for the Aug. 11 primary, with four opening 45 to 90 minutes late, five opening within 30 minutes and four opening less than five minutes late, according to the state Office of Elections.
Nago said in a news release the state is opening a control center and counting center in the state office building adjacent to the county building in Hilo. State Ballot Operations Section Head Lori Tomczyk, who provided support in Hilo during the primary, will be the state’s lead administrator. The state office will administer Election Day activities such as ballot delivery and collection, control center and polling place operations.
“We believe that this decision best ensures a successful General Election in the County of Hawaii,” Nago said in the news release. “It will allow the county to focus its resources exclusively on voter registration and absentee voting.”
Voter registration for the General Election ends Monday. Absentee voting at selected polling places, known as early walk-in voting, occurs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 3. Oct. 30 is the deadline to submit an absentee mail-in ballot.
Still unclear following Nago’s announcement was whether state or county employees will conduct the election and, if county employees are used, whether the state will take steps to prevent the “blue flu” that saw four of the county’s seven permanent elections workers — including the acting elections administrator — not show up for work on primary election day.
No one from the state Elections Office returned several detailed messages Tuesday. County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi also did not return telephone calls Tuesday. Earlier in the day she told Stephens Media she planned to concentrate on voter registration efforts, but she didn’t say why.
The office has been in disarray since January, when longtime administrator Pat Nakamoto and three other Elections Division employees were fired after an investigation reportedly found evidence of alcohol use on county property and a private sign-making business being run out of the elections warehouse.
Also unclear is why the state decided to take action this week, when some have been calling for state intervention for months, and others have said they see progress in the county Elections Division, with new staff assignments in key positions.
The County Council today is scheduled to take up two resolutions seeking to stabilize the Elections Division and find answers to just what went wrong on Aug. 11.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi’s resolution “strongly urges” Kawauchi to hire an “independent and experienced” elections administrator with five to 15 years of supervisory experience in elections administration within seven days of adoption of the resolution. Onishi said Tuesday he’ll withdraw his resolution.
“That’s going to bring confidence to the people,” Onishi said of the state announcement. “They’ll know it will bring a fair and open election.”
The other resolution, sponsored by North Kona Councilman Angel Pilago, asks the council to endorse a news release the Hawaii State League of Women Voters wrote making four recommendations. The league urged the County Council to fully staff the county Elections Division, including an experienced administrator at the helm, and ensure the staff participates in state workshops. The league, based in Honolulu, wants Kawauchi to designate official political and press observers.
And it wants the state Elections Commission to conduct an investigation into primary day problems to ensure they don’t happen in the General Election and also to clarify responsibilities between county and state elections staff.
Council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who controls the council majority that hired the clerk, questioned the timing of the state move.
“I find it interesting that this comes after the clerk has set up all the groundwork for the General Election and the council will consider the League of Women Voters’ resolution,” Yagong said. “I find it kind of interesting they want to take it over when there’s a call for an investigation.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.