Saturday, October 10, 2015         

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Elections office breathes easier

Budget, staffing and technical problems are being surmounted

By Vicki Viotti


The state Office of Elections, amid worries that budget cuts would hobble polling this year, dodged several bullets that could have mortally wounded the primary election operations.

A few of the bullets did strike, but some of these problems involved confusion over the ballots' partisan sections, which won't be a feature in the general election.


» Monday: Last day to register to vote for the general election. For more information, call the state elections office at 453-8683 or see its website at www. voters/registration.htm.
» Oct. 19: General election walk-in absentee polling begins.
» Oct. 26: Last day to request absentee mail ballots.
» Oct. 30: Last day to vote at walk-in absentee polling places.
» Nov. 2: General election.
"I think it went remarkably well, considering," said Jean Aoki, who has been an election-watcher for the League of Women Voters. "I have been quite supportive of the elections office. They had to go through so much."

Although things went fairly well Sept. 18 for the office's pared-down staff, there's little time to rest before it resumes outreach to the expected boost in turnout for the general election -- including many voters still unaware of the changes in polling locations.

The low point during Primary Saturday, said office spokesman Rex Quidilla, was the two-hour lapse at Waikiki Elementary School waiting for repair crews to get the ballot scanner back up and running.

Breakdowns are inevitable, Quidilla said, but the hope is that Hart InterCivic, the contractor charged with the maintenance of the machines, won't have such a hard time putting things right in the event of a future failure.

"Scott, he's not happy that that occurred," he said.

That was a reference to Scott Nago, the veteran staffer who took over as elections chief this year in the midst of recessionary cutbacks and in the wake of disputes involving his predecessor, Kevin Cronin. Nago ended up implementing a plan to shutter 92 polling stations in order to winnow the costs of preparing volunteers and other staff.

This was also a year in which elections offices like Hawaii's, which usually conducts primary and general elections in fairly rapid succession, had to adjust to a new federal law requiring that ballots get to overseas voters early enough so they have a minimum 30 days to return them.

Initially denied a waiver from the rule for this election, state and federal officials finally agreed that the general-election ballots could be sent by courier (they went out last week) so they could get there and back by the Nov. 2 general. Next election, Hawaii will schedule an earlier primary, so the problem goes away.

Aoki, who sits in on discussions of the Elections Commission, said she worried that the budget had precluded filling a key vacancy: the staffer who oversees the ballot section. However, Quidilla said, the office was able to fill that spot on a contract basis for the election days with a former staffer who already knew the job.

The most widespread problem was voter confusion over the sectioning of the ballot to accommodate candidates in each party. Among the common errors Quidilla cited: failure to check off the party of choice, missing the Republican section on the back side and casting votes across party lines -- not permitted in Hawaii's primaries.

Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the Republican Party of Hawaii, said the elections office should have shown the parties the ballot layout before it went to the printers.

"The ballot was confusing; it was not color-coded," he said.

Quidilla countered, though, that parties were invited to review the ballot in advance but did not take that initiative.

The principal challenge for the general election, he added, will be continuing to get the word out on relocation of polling places, through radio and TV advertising.

The office had help from Kanu Hawaii and other volunteer organizations that sent staff to serve as lookouts at the polling places that had been shut down; these people redirected voters to the correct locations.

Not all of the 92 sites were covered, Quidilla acknowledged, but he added that "this is a case where half-measures were helpful."

The advertising costs were underwritten by a federal grant from the Help America Vote Act. The election never would have happened without the $250,000 that had been allotted by the state Legislature, Quidilla said. Without it, the office lacked the funds to transport ballots throughout the neighbor islands, buy basic supplies and pay for the cell communications among the polling stations.

Nonaka noted the increase in early voting with each election, something that has changed campaigning metrics. Other states have tracking systems that can produce reports on which precincts have the most votes outstanding so that campaigns can target their resources better.

Quidilla acknowledged that $4 million in federal funding is reserved for an upgrade to Hawaii's low-tech absentee balloting system, but the focus has been on executing a basic election competently under the current budgetary duress.

He pointed to figures from past elections, in which the general election invariably draws significantly more voters than the primary. Making sure the staff is up to the task during the current difficult year is the main concern now, he said.

Beyond November, the elections office needs to concentrate on its core goal of drawing more Hawaii voters to the polls. The 42.8 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in the primary was better than it's been since 1998, but it's not good enough, said William Marston, who chairs Hawaii's Elections Commission. General election turnout hasn't cracked the 70 percent ceiling since 1994.

"The commission in general feels the voter turnout is not what we want to see," Marston said.

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