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League of Women Voters recommends response to elections problem

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To ensure a smooth general election in Hawaii County and restore voter confidence, the Hawaii State League of Women Voters recommends specific actions by the Hawaii County Council and its Clerk, and an investigation by the State Elections Commission.

In a democracy, every vote matters: each vote is the choice of a unique individual about what kind of government s/he wants. Collecting and recording those votes gives meaning to democracy.

Over the years, members of state and county Leagues of Women Voters have worked with many public officials who register voters and run elections.

Members of the Hawaii State League of Women Voters served on the 2002 Election Review Task Force, and in 2012 as in past elections our members have volunteered in polling places and the state control and counting centers.

This year, we have been troubled by a number of serious issues on the island of Hawaii which cumulatively may have diminished voters’ confidence in the Hawaii County Elections Office. We are concerned about an apparent lack of communication and transparency from the County Clerk with the press and public.

Press conferences may have explained prior actions, but the time lag between actions and explanations fostered an air of mistrust.

The State Elections Office complained about unreturned calls and emails to the County Elections Office. Staff terminations, unexpected leaves of absence, complaints of inadequate staffing, and miscommunications led to what one journalist called “chaos” on Primary Election Day.

Hawaii County and the state share responsibility for operation of elections on the Big Island. According to state elections law (HRS 11-184), the county is responsible for voter registration, absentee ballots and operation of early voting locations; the state is responsible for hiring precinct officials for election day, monitoring election day operations, collection of walk-in ballots and tabulation of all ballots.

Responsibility for some functions is not clearly specified in HRS 11. It is not clear that either jurisdiction has sufficient authority to resolve all the problems that surfaced in the Big Island primary election.

The Hawaii County Council met Aug. 20, and the Hawaii County Clerk provided her status report to the Council. The State Elections Commission also met on that day.

There, the Chief Elections Officer provided his status report to the Commission. Members of the state League of Women Voters attended and presented comments at both meetings. Because of the media’s diligent reporting, the public learned that the county and state do not agree on the scope or causes of the election difficulties, or what can be done to prevent a recurrence.

With less than two months left until the general election, voters deserve a clear response to the primary day mishaps, one which restores faith in the conduct of elections in Hawaii County.

In a creative step toward such a response, State Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago invited staff of the Hawaii County Office of Elections to a series of workshops provided by experienced elections staff in other counties.

We applaud this positive strategy.

To ensure a smooth general election in Hawaii County, the Hawaii State League of Women Voters:

1) Urges the Hawaii County Council to ensure that all relevant Elections Office staff participate in the remaining workshops.

2) Urges the Hawaii County Council, in line with their responsibilities, to fully staff the Elections Division, and to assign undivided responsibility for county preparations for and conduct of the November voting process to someone with experience in successfully managing elections.

3) Expects the County Clerk to comply with relevant legislation, including designating official political and press observers for the Big Island Counting Center, as required under HRS § 16-45. Public release of identities of observers would reassure the public and media that the law is being implemented.

4) Recommends that the State Elections Commission, as required under HRS 11-8.5, conduct an investigation of the processes and actions that led up to the Aug. 11 mishaps in Hawaii County, to apply to the November general election, prevent similar problems in future elections, and inform future efforts to clarify responsibilities among state and county elections staff.

These steps would go a long way to restoring voter confidence.

The Big Island’s difficulties affect the entire state, not just that island, because the general election includes Sstate and federal candidates. The effects of a botched Hawaii County election in November could spread beyond the Big Island.

Any questionable practices might generate candidate lawsuits, which are always costly to taxpayers. Hawaii could face intense scrutiny with plenty of people asking, “Why wasn’t the problem resolved?”

It’s not too late to prepare for smooth operation of the Big Island’s November election. Why risk a repeat of August’s problems, when something can be done about it?

(The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy thorough education and advocacy. Membership is open to men and women of all ages.)

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