Why voting wasn’t extended for more of Puna and what lawmakers want to fix

Elections officials raised a red flag Saturday about allegations of voter access problems in Puna, but voting hours were not extended for them.

Extensive damage beyond the two closed Puna voting precincts kept many in from getting to the other open polls nearby. But after polls opened, any more voting delays could only be allowed by a governor’s decree made during polling hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — as in 2012 when Neil Abercrombie stretched voting hours when some Big Island polling places opened late.

Always Investigating wanted answers about what happened this year.

KHON2 asked the Office of Elections, did anybody reach out on Saturday during the day to say, wait, something’s going wrong in Puna?

“The issue was broached and no action, the decision was not to extend,” explained Rex Quidilla of the Office of Elections.

Was the governor’s office or anyone outside of the Office of Elections made aware of it to make that decision?

“There was discussion on the matter,” Quidilla said. “The attorney general’s office did not believe there was enough objective information to make the determination. So the issue was raised of possibly extending hours. Again, the issue became difficult to ascertain because we were here in Honolulu. We had to rely on these reports. So we forwarded the information to the Attorney General’s office for the governor’s consideration, and they did not determine that enough information was available to extend the polls.”

KHON2 asked the attorney general for more detail.

“On Saturday during the election, the office of the Attorney General received information that there had been information from Sen. (Russell) Ruderman (D-Puna) that some people on the Big Island were not able to vote. We needed to get information to confirm or corroborate that somewhat vague allegation, because there were no numbers mentioned,” Attorney General David Louie told KHON2.

 “Civil defense was unable to confirm or corroborate that. They indicated that the polling places were still open in that area. We did this with the corporation counsel on the Big Island,” Louie continued. “Because there was no objective evidence at that time, and the corporation counsel had checked with the County of Hawaii Civil Defense, the decision was made that there was insufficient evidence to do anything such as extending voting hours. We were not able to confirm that there was any objective evidence that voters’ right to vote was being substantially impaired.”

Now that those polls have closed, state law has no remedies for those storm-affected voters, short of them having to file legal challenges at the state Supreme Court. Lawmakers could address many of the gaps in state election law, but they’re in a race against time.

 “We should assess it and if we need to, we can go into a special session to square it up, to make sure it’s constitutionally sound and do right by the voters of Puna,” said special session advocate Rep. Marcus Oshiro.

 KHON2 asked, what exactly would they focus on fixing in a special session that would be retroactive to this election?

“There are several things. There is a question of whether there are some voters who may have been disenfranchised by being outside the boundaries of the precincts. That’s one thing,” Oshiro said. “There are also those who may have not been able to attend the polls that were open on Saturday because of the storm-related damages. And, of course, those that were told not to attend the polls on Saturday, that you were going to vote by absentee ballots, that’s how you’re going to participate.”

KHON2 asked if the governor would be willing to call a session, but his spokesperson deferred to the lawmakers saying, “The legislature has the power to call a special session under the constitution.”

Lawmakers would have to round up 17 Senate and 34 House members willing to do it, and they’d need five days to move any bills through.

“There’s enough time, if we get a time-out from (Chief Elections Officer) Scott Nago, if the governor gets involved,” Oshiro said. “First things first is to take a time-out right now and not proceed so hastily, when we know the people of Puna are just trying to get their lives together.”

KHON2 asked the Office of Elections, is it still possible that they could choose to delay it one more time?

“Right now that’s not a decision before us,” Quidilla said. “We are working toward an election on Friday.”

“At this point I can’t conceive of anything at this point to make us reconsider the position,” he added. “We weren’t trying to disenfranchise the community. We were doing this without regard to whatever other interest might be out there except to allow people in 04-01 and 04-02 to vote.”

 

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