Categorized | Elections, Featured, News

Big Island Press Club member reports on elections night

Absentee ballot counting center on election night in Hilo’s State Building. (Photo courtesy of Robert Duerr)

(Editor’s Note: Robert Duerr has written for Hawaii Fishing News for 25 years and is an award-winning scriptwriter. He is a member of Outdoor Writers of America Association, Big Island Press Club and father of five. He was nominated by the Big Island Press Club to serve as a the county Election Division media observer during the Nov. 6 General Election.)

By Robert Duerr

It’s just another Big Island Press Club meeting at Na Leo Public Access television studio conference room and the Hawaii Island counting center election observer vote goes to the Hawaii Fishing News writer.

There is that nano second of gloat that overwhelms you when you win anything. I’ve had the same feeling winning a bag of rice at at Hilo Trollers lucky number drawing.

I am drawn to breath when the chair asks what do I vote. “I abstain.” The press is guaranteed a place at the observer table and Nov, 6, I am it.

Been there done that. I’ve been an election observer four times in the past. Started in 1998 when in my living room Ban Irradiation organizer Naomi Cohen looks to Kathy Dorn and says “Yeah, he can do it.”

I then became the Green Party eyes and ears of democracy for three more cycles.

These were the golden years of Hawaii election observing. Dwayne Yoshina was the head of elections and Sue Irvine was the leader of the Hawaii Island observers.

That year 1998 was the first year that machines were used to count ballots. ESS was the contractor and both politicians and the electorate were leery. Because of a slight discrepancy a recount of every vote cast was called.

A memorable quote from an ESS technician about our local level scrutiny was: “We do elections all over the world. The Philippines is tough. You should try doing the Teamsters. But Hawaii is the toughest.”

I was chosen to fly with Big Island recount ballots on a small plane that left under guard from Kona to guards waiting in Honolulu. The recount was done in the bowels of Aloha Stadium. I was with Sue Irvine.

It was a massive undertaking with a football field of tabulating machines. Of 412,520 votes cast there was a discrepancy of 7 votes or was it 11 votes. It was inconsequential and I became a believer in Hawaii process and Yoshina in particular. He was legendary in his calm, forthright and detailed procedure.

The Press Club thinks an outdoor writer selection is perfect. What trouble can a guy who writes about dead ahi get into during an election? Maybe lunch has bad fish?

Nancy Cook Lauer, a political writer for West Hawaii Today and Stephens Media, gives me Rex Quidilla’s phone. Quidilla is the elections office spokesperson and over the years I’ve talked with him.

“Rex, this is Robert Duerr on the Big Island just got elected to be the press observer.”

“Sure, Bob I remember you. Let me get with Scott and he’ll get back with you.”

Scott is Scott Nago the head of elections. Nago was a young elections staffer when I first monitored. I’ve only known him to be courteous, competent and he calls.

Scott Nago calls and there’s manini chit chat about the primary and the takeover by the state of the local election. Nago assures that it is something that they’d rather not be doing but the election will run the same as always.

He’ll send a “2012 Counting Center Manual” and a personal information sheet. Observing does pay minimum wage.

It’s morning of Nov. 6. I’m off the bench late in the game. Most official counting center observers start with the primary. In August, they volunteer and are approved by the state Elections Office.

Most of the observers are multi election cycle veterans. This is not their first rodeo. Talking with observers none had seen an election like the bucking bronco primary.

All receive a “2012 Counting Center Manual.” The manual was drafted in the Yoshina years and outlines the complete flow and process for the counting center. It is succinct. It is pin-point precise.

7:45 a.m. Pulling into the State Building on Aupuni Street, I make the mistake of parking in an empty lot. A security guard comes out and points to the lower parking level. It is not an issue now but at 3 a.m. some female observers are worried about an unlit area late at night.

Donny Cortez a friend from kids-in-AYSO-soccer days greets me. His wife Wendy Cortez is head of the observer team. We take a walk around the building seeing the day’s layout.

Second mistake? I don’t have my official yellow observer official shirt. I get. I have. I am assigned to the Control Packet Team.

Lunch and dinner tickets are in the back of the necklace name cards. If I was at the center at 3 a.m. when precinct leaders come and go I would have had breakfast. Confession, I’m haole and only can take two scoop rice twice a day.

8:50 a.m. The Absentee Ballot Team begins processing. Absentee ballots (AB ballots) have grown over the years. Today, more than 30,000 will be processed — nearly 50 percent of the cast votes.

Margaret Lucas is the team leader. She is seasoned and we say hello having worked together back in the day. She has 30 people who are sitting at white fold-up picnic tables.

Sealed boxes of AB ballots are wire-cutter opened. An observer witnesses the box number seal. AB ballots go to tables and are stacked. A crew of young men, one of which is a Cortez, efficiently take unopened envelopes and run them through a letter opener.

The AB ballots go back to the tables where the crew takes the ballot and the signed voter affirmation statement out of the envelope. Ballots are unfolded and stacked ready for the counting machine.

The AB ballots include folks who like to vote from home, military, overseas, off island, fax and email ballots.

On the second floor of the State Building in the large Makai courtroom, Terrance Noda, the counting center manager, is gingerly making his rounds with a mini counting center manual and notes in hand.

The election is rolling. Now he douses brushfires. He is mostly dealing with absentee ballot (AB ballots) problems that are now being processed.

What Noda is actually doing is making sure that problems don’t become bigger problems. Case in point: the AB ballots are being opened by a rookie crew using a high speed letter opener. If the machine goes haywire the cutter can cut ballots.

A cut ballot can be a spoiled ballot and if there is one cut ballot there will be more and all will need a duplication process.

Duplication requires AB team, Control Packet Team, Duplication Team back to Control Packet Team back to AB Ballot team and then to the counting machine.

I have likely missed a step or two but the point is that in elections the problems are often systemic and when they rise they can escalate quickly. Systemic failure lurks but today counting center election seismic activity won’t be on the island with the world’s most active volcano.

The Hawaii Island Counting Center is revving. The entire Makai Courtroom mauka wall is taken up with a phone bank. There are 20 stations and the crews man the call center phones answering questions from the precincts.

I’ve been assigned to the Control Packet Team, which hasn’t reported for duty yet. Normally, I’ve been with the counting machines run by ESS.

ESS has been replaced by Hart InterCivic as the contractor providing counting machines. Today, long time observer head, Sue Irvine and veteran election worker Marsha are working for Hart. Their job is to feed ballots into the 2 Kodak one pass double sided scanner machines.

9:50 a.m. Lori Tomczyk, Ballot Operations Section Head, sequesters myself, another observer and two state workers to go to the County Building. We’re picking up unissued ballots located in the basement storage area.

County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi and her assistant Steve meet us.

Side note here. Though I am the press observer for the elections counting center, my job is not to write a story.

Knowing the process and agreeing with Scott Naga’s pre-game talk I can write what I want after my observer duties are done. So, I journal, but don’t get last names and other details if a notebook was in hand.

The elevator needs a key to work. Where is it? Finally, we descend into the nether world county bureaucracy. It’s neat and orderly but still smells Kafka.

Kawauchi is smiling, upbeat, pleasant and quietly in her own world. This is her lair.

I ask Tomczyk: “Are the unissued ballots audited?”

She seems perplexed and asks “You mean reconciled?”

We do not take an inventory of the unissued ballots returned from the county to the state. The audit versus reconciled talk goes back and forth.

The issue is that unissued ballots are a part of the total ballots on record. The sum of all ballots voted, unissued, spoiled and those AB ballots not returned are the auditable tally to the correct ballot reconciliation to total ballots for election 2012/13. What is that number and who sees the audit trail?

Elections are like surprise birthday parties. Today the task is to find a party hat put it on the winner and then “blow the candles out.”

Today is all about getting the results in and releasing on time. The first AB ballot printout is due at 6:01 p.m. right the polls close. Unlike birthday presents, with elections by the end of the night all races are pressed to tidily wrap up.

But what about results that are skewed by a bad election? Here in the bowels of Hawaii County government, with paper storage boxes neatly stacked Kawauchi walks rather aimlessly. For her the day is somewhere between a vacation day and being told by the teacher to sit in the corner.

Behind Kawauchi is an area cordoned off with wire walls and a locked wire door. Behind the wire sits the primary storage boxes and the ballots of a botched election.

The observer I’m with asks “why aren’t these boxes in Honolulu? Isn’t that where ballots go after an election?” Today, it’s a race for minutes to announce winners. Elections that don’t have candles blown out go to live in dark places forever.

We observe 42 sealed boxes being put on a dolly and load them into a U-Haul truck for the short trek back to the State Building.

Once back in state jurisdiction, we unload them in one of the many secure locked conference rooms behind the courtroom.

Here’s the point I’ve seen over the years. With so many seals, signatures, eyes and ears it’s hard to steal an election. Easier solution just buy one. Big donation money buying advertising is the way to go.

10:45 a.m. I go with an observer and we take empty AB ballot boxes to storage. Margaret Lucas the time tested veteran of the AB Ballot team sees her crew stoking the opening and unfolding ballots to feed the counting machines. The machines have no problems.

Noda is seeing things go well and he is feeling good and maintains his smile and pleasant attitude. Ironically, on Oahu and the first precincts begin to run out of ballots. Hawaii County is looking golden and Noda is glad the goat is not in his room.

Lucas mentions that Kawauchi took her to Oahu with staff. There she saw how Oahu set up their AB operation. She comments “I saw how they set it up. It was very helpful. Elections there took over the senate and legislative floors and they covered everything in the room computers and the floor and then brought their own things in.”

When asked how the general is going in the Hilo counting center she says: “Smoothly, very smoothly.” When asked if it is like normal her answer is “Yes, like normal.”

Lucas works for the county as the mail coordinator. She has been watching the AB mail pickup count each day. So she has the day by day tally and knows how many to have on her crew.

The morning mail has been picked up at the post office and there are another 300 or so AB ballots delivered. She expects one more AB mail pickup at 5 p.m. After that she will wait with a skeleton crew to receive and count AB ballots dropped in cans at precinct locations.

11:15 a.m. Donny Cortez sends me to lunch. Three scoop rice, spam, korean beef and fish.

11:45 a.m. We are moving ballots back and forth from AB team to computer operations to the counting machine. There are 800 ballots in each box. The boxes are weighed and most come in at 16.51 pounds. When they leave computer ops they are marked counted and weighed again.

12:15 p.m. Brad Clark of the Hart InterCivic team takes 100 ballots that have been tallied and sends them to Honolulu in what he calls a “rally.” This is the first a real time test with live ballots. Honolulu will receive the rally and then send back to Clark their tally. All is copacetic. Earlier in the day Clark has tested and reconciled observer audit ballots to insure machine accuracy.

The duplication team is up and running redoing spoiled ballots. What’s a spoiled ballot? Could have a child’s scribbling on it. Could have a mark on the scan code area. Could have a double vote for president. Mark could be unreadable. Might have white out in a race and a revote. The scanning machines pick up these spoiled ballots and reject them.

There aren’t that many and in the 30,000 AB ballots maybe there are 100 dupes.

2:45 p.m. All AB ballots are boxed. The crew has made remarkable headway and what looked like a task that could fall behind finishes early. Duplication of ballots slows. It’s a rush to finish tabulating all AB ballots for the 6 p.m. printout.

The scanning machines can’t stop counting to print out duplication ballots. Printing duplication ballots is a slow process. Each is coded to the voter’s precinct.

Here is where Oahu is getting deeper into trouble. Having precinct specific ballots is much more difficult than a sheet of paper where one size fits all. For the first time in the day the phone bank is quiet.

3 p.m. Kawauchi is in the hallway talking to Tomczyk. Kawauchi is like a ghost and casts no shadows.

4:20 p.m. The phone bank picks up again. It’s the last flurry before polls close. Noda is visibly excited. His only worry is getting the AB count finished for the 6 p.m. printout. It’ll be close but no one in the room is betting against him to succeed.

5:35 p.m. The counting center erupts with applause. The AB ballots that are nearly 50 percent of the general vote are all counted.

6 p.m. Noda sends his count to Honolulu. I go to dinner show my yellow ticket and get the lau lau, lomi salmon, chicken long rice and laupia. These ono grinds made by Malia Church in Keaukaha.

6:20 p.m. In the counting center there is a wall with cards numbered with each precinct. As the precinct closes the card is turned over. It’s like a game show and the call center workers are lively playing it. The call center is critical in opening and closing polling. Many precinct captains need to be walked through protocol on properly shutting down machines and the countless questions from the electorate.

Tomczyk gives the phone crew a final play pep talk saying to maintain focus: “As soon as you get them home you get home.”

The last precinct closes and the last card is turned. Again applause.

“I want to thank you all. You came in early though you had late notice and you stayed the whole day.” Tomczyk congratulates. With hugs and aloha Tomczyk says farewell to the callers. The room is decidedly quiet and takes on the feeling of a situation room.

6:50 p.m. A lonely call center phone rings. A worker stops dismantling the phone center. It’s Keaau and they have a problem. The worker shrugs and audibly moans. Turns out to be manini.

Not so with Honolulu. Their polls are still open. What’s it mean for us? We won’t see results until Honolulu closes and the observers left will leave later not sooner. The ballot boxes and data cards begin arriving.

7:15 p.m. The phone bank is unplugged. Hawaii Island has had a successful election. The poll book audit and ballot audit team have arrived. The audit crew looks like 25-30 people. Hart InterCivic tallies two data cards and then does a system check sending and receiving data from Honolulu. My job is to observe the cards going rom station to station.

8 p.m. Oahu and Kauai are still open. They are in deep trouble. The computer operation team is busy getting data cards from our precincts. The cards are given to the Hart people who put them into a data card reader.

9:15 p.m. The first printout is ready. Hart is very judicious here. Hart’s Clark talks about the Bruce Babson lawsuit on Maui where the outer island tallies need to be sent to Oahu and the totals reconciled with local results.

This requires sending and receiving data and is time consuming. All Hawaii County election data is in. Modems have sent the Kona, Kohala and Kau results. The counting center is waiting for the hard goods: ballots and cards to be delivered by truck.

Election results come slow to posting in center. Rumors swirl that Obama has won.

10 p.m. Having done this for five election cycles, I know what is happening now is not good for observer R.E.M. sleeptime. Now is the time to see the light at the end of the tunnel which means we are done at 12:30 a.m. and out by 1 a.m. There is a tunnel and it is dark.

1 a.m. The darkness which is the tunnel is that the audit team has randomly selected a machine from Kohala. The machine was left behind. There is a plan for a Hilo staffer rumored to be Noda to drive half way and meet the machine.

This is my last journal entry. It’s now 17 hours on election duty and “Purple haze all in my brain. Lately things just don’t seem the same. Actin funny, but I don’t know why.”

I finally ask someone: “Excuse me but what seems to be the problem and do we have an ETD?”

It’s government problem solving 101 and no answer is the answer.
I have been holding off on Portuguese bean soup a Hilo counting center tradition. I don’t like eat when I go to sleep now it’s eat to avoid sleep.

2:15 a.m. Elvis leaves the building. Kawauchi comes to the counting center hallway and says nighty nite to state elections officials. She is gracious and thankful.

3 a.m. It’s another election wrap. The audit done in a hallway to dim light while burning the midnight oil is completed. The election candles have all been blown out. Left over lau laus are boxed and taken by workers. Ballot Question 6, which is near and dear to my outdoor readers and establishes a hunter, fisher, gatherer management commission, has passed handily.

3:15 a.m. I arrive home after a 19 hour day. My son has loaded the truck. It is fishing at 5:30 a.m. Two hours of sleep, on the 21-foot Force Mo Bettah and another outdoor story. Seas are rough.

My post election day will be choppy, bumpy and miserable with tossing cookies a distinct possibility. I wonder what the elections officials’ day will be like in Honolulu?

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