Blocked in by huge fallen trees, no power, dwindling water supply and food — and no voting for many last Saturday.
We’re not just talking about people in the two precincts who got their voting delayed by official decree. We’re talking about a much wider area around that on the Big Island.
“There were people who were in certain areas where the voting was open, but they could not get out,” said Puna resident Bruce Darny. “There were people stuck every which way saying we couldn’t get to our poll.”
Many people assigned to Big Island polling places that were open Saturday still did not make it to the voting booth due to the effects of Iselle.
So Always Investigating dug into just how extensive the disenfranchised voter problem is in Puna.
Voters and local officials say the borders were drawn too narrowly when the Office of Elections gave only two polling places more time.
“The aftermath is worse than most people realize,” Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents the Puna district, told KHON2. “What they did was flew over these areas and make a determination that roads were clear and no problem. I’m here to report that’s inaccurate information. Even if the major arteries were cleared that does not mean people had access to them. People live on the side streets that were blocked, so if a highway was open, it doesn’t mean a person can go vote.”
The numbers bear that out. About 18 percent of registered voters statewide opted to cast a ballot on Election Day Saturday. But in the remaining open precincts in the Puna district, only 12 percent did this year versus 20 percent in the 2012 primary, about the same rate on Election Day as the rest of state back then.
Even if they could have found a way to the open polls, many put safety, family and life’s basics like water first.
“They weren’t lazy, they weren’t apathetic,” Ruderman said. “They were hit hardest by the storm and then penalized by a bureaucratic decision on Oahu that they didn’t count. That’s not fair.”
“What they need really to do on this whole area down here,” Darny said, “is say because you’re in that disaster area, if you want to vote and you didn’t get a chance to vote for whatever reason, then they need to go back down, open the polls up and have these people vote.”
Hawaii County Council member Ann Ford even asked for the whole Puna district to get mail-in ballots, but that was turned down because the Office of Elections says it’s now out of their hands. According to a letter by Nago addressed to Ford, any delay declaration by them would had to have been made before voting started.
“We’ve heard that they have had accessibility problems in many parts of lower Puna,” Hawaii County Clerk Stewart Maeda said. “We would be referring them to the governor’s office to voice that concern because we would not be able to address that concern from them at the county level nor at the state Office of Elections.”
Always Investigating asked and the governor’s office responded: “The governor’s office is aware of the situation and is working through the Attorney General’s office on this matter.”
The attorney general told us any executive powers to extend more polling would have had to have been exercised on Saturday before the polls closed.
“He has to exercise those powers during the emergency period,” Attorney General David Louie said. “In other words, had it come to the governor’s attention or others’ attention that there was a need to extend the hours or people couldn’t get there, then I suppose it is possible, although it is speculative, that the governor might have exercised that power on Saturday, the day of the election. However once the polls close, he does not have the power.”
“I tried to contact the governor’s office over the weekend. Of course it was closed,” Ruderman said. “I contacted Civil Defense. I tried every method I could to get through to the person who could make this decision.”
Hawaii Revised Statutes have no provision for an after-the-fact extension.
“I’m sympathetic, but we have to look at the law. There are these statutes on this and we have to do what the law tells us to do,” Louie said.
Other states have tackled natural disaster impacts through provisional balloting or affidavits for displaced voters. KHON2 asked, could a provisional ballot by anyone who can attest that they were storm-affected possibly be cast this Friday when the two precincts head to the reopen polling place, or any other kind of disaster consideration?
“We’ve been looking at the statutes and there really is no provision in the election statutes that addresses that,” Louie said.
The attorney general says the only remaining remedy now would be to sue and file an election challenge at the Hawaii Supreme Court.
“But they have to show that it would have changed the results of the election,” Louie said.