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Hawaii commission opens investigation into election day debacles

By   /   August 25, 2014  /   No Comments

Mel Ah Ching photo

UNDER FIRE: Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago tells elections commissioners why there were so many problems with the recent primary and special elections.

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU — Three Hawaii lawmakers called on the State Elections Commission to fire Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago Friday during a standing room-only commission meeting.

They were among several people outraged over recent debacles surrounding Hawaii Island’s primary and special elections.

“The decisions made in this election were just pitifully poor. Frankly, Mr. Nago needs to be removed from this office,” said Hawaii Island Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who represents South Kona and Kau, two areas impacted by the storm.

Just hours before the Aug. 9 primary, Tropical Storm Iselle hit Hawaii Island, damaging 1,400 homes and leaving many residents in the Puna district without electricity, water, food or shelter.

An election officer closed two polling locations, but many residents in neighboring districts said they couldn’t get to their assigned polling places because of downed power lines and trees. State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, and Ford were among the people who contacted Nago to tell him of the situation in Puna, but Nago didn’t take action.

Nago told commissioners his office “doesn’t have the authority to take action regarding the polls once they are open Election Day. Only the governor has the authority. Given this, we relayed our concerns to the attorney general’s office to inform the governor.”

The state Office of Elections said Aug. 9 that those who couldn’t vote in the closed districts would be mailed a ballot within 21 days. Instead, the office held a special election Aug. 15.

Nago told commissioners that the Friday before the election civil defense personnel told him roads were impassable, leading to the announcement there would be an all-mail special election, but he changed that when those same officials told him four days later the roads were open.

Ruderman told commission members voters in his district were unable to even learn there was a separate special election because they had no mail, email, or access to media reports without electricity. Many were still unable to make it out of their homes and communities, he said.

Mel Ah Ching photo

Hawaii Councilmember Brenda Ford calls for Nago to be fired.

Voters unable to make it to open polling places Aug. 9 because of the storm were prevented from voting in the special election, another factor that outraged lawmakers at the meeting Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of potentially thousands of Hawaii Island residents asking the Hawaii Supreme Court to allow them to participate in the election after the fact. The ACLU noted turnout was as low as 11 percent in affected districts.

Maintaining that the lawsuit “concerns the fundamental right to vote and the disenfranchisement of hundreds and potentially thousands of affected voters,” the ACLU also asked the high court rule that the state Legislature failed to protect residents’ right to vote by assigning all decisions relating to natural disasters to the Office of Elections.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa earlier filed a lawsuit in state court to try and delay the Aug. 15 special election, but the judge denied her request for a temporary restraining order.

In a separate incident, some 800 ballots on the island of Maui were not counted Primary Election night.

Nago blamed the election vendor for losing the 800 ballots, which were eventually counted in the Aug. 15 special election results. He said everyone involved would be “held accountable.”

However, Commissioner Danny Young told Nago: “The bottom line, after you hold everybody accountable, the hammer falls on your head.”

At the conclusion of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, state elections commission members opened three separate investigations, one into the Hawaii Island elections, one into the missing Maui ballots and a third into Nago’s management.

The commission reconvenes Oct. 2.

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Malia Zimmerman co-founded the investigative news organization, Hawaii Reporter, in February 2002. Malia reports daily for KHVH News Radio 830 AM, a local Clear Channel station, and hosts a monthly inspirational television show on the local CBS affiliate called You've Got the Power. Malia has freelanced for ABC 20/20, People magazine, Inside Edition, Fox News and publications such as the Washington Times, Bangkok Post and the Wall Street Journal. Malia and the reporters who worked under her have won numerous awards for their investigative reporting.