Fix for disaster-delayed voting law promised

The storm-delayed voters on the Big Island became the “swing votes” in the U.S. Senate race due to a decades-old law that had not yet been tested.

With all other voting results released, those last to vote have an unusual amount of input and influence. Now, many say it’s time to fix some unintended consequences.

Always Investigating examined the issue and got results — lawmakers are ready to make a change.

After the devastation of Hurricane Iniki in 1992, lawmakers passed a bill to allow voting to be delayed for any areas hit hard by natural disaster. That happened for two polling areas on the Big Island when Tropical Storm Iselle hit, as downed trees and power outages made a Saturday vote next to impossible.

Attorney General David Louie explained it to KHON2 this way: “That same law which was passed by the legislature says any such postponement will not affect the tabulation and the distribution of the results.”

That part of the old law means go ahead, count ‘em up and tell everybody who everybody else picked — even before the disaster-delayed voters make their choices. In this case it’s a relatively small area, but matched up with a small margin race like the U.S. Senate contest between Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa, it’s now a new game.

“These people will be getting a lot of attention,” said Hawaii Pacific University Communications Chair John Hart. “They haven’t voted before in significant numbers, but you bet they will now.”

In every other election, we’ve waited until all polls are closed before getting or sharing any numbers, so there won’t be any influence on the last voters. But that storm-delay clause in the law seems to run counter to that principal.

The attorney general’s office told KHON2 they even dove into old committee reports and testimony from the bill crafted in the 1990s to make sure if this is what lawmakers intended.

In the end, releasing results despite votes yet-to-come is what’s right there in black and white.

“So that’s our reading, and that was the advice we got from the attorney general to do this, and that’s why we did what we did,” Scott Nago, chief elections officer, told KHON2.

When asked how would change happen, and whose responsibility would that be, Nago replied “it would be up to the legislature to change the policy. Once they do that, then it would up to us to implement that.”

Sen. Les Ihara, who was at the State Capitol Saturday night to observe the election count, told KHON2: “Apparently all of us did not realize the impact of that (storm-delay clause), and obviously I think it needs to be amended so that we can prevent something major from happening. Let’s say half the precincts in the state are shut down or postponed, the election would be affected by it.”

Will action be forthcoming?

“Yes, I am sure there will be a bill,” Ihara said. “If not, I will do that, and we’ll consider the whole issue. The law needs to be amended to allow for flexibility and that means we’ll have to delegate it to the chief elections officer or someone else, and they will have to make the tough call.”

We’ll follow up to make sure the results-part of the disaster-delay voting law gets attention next session.

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