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Hawaii state, county knew of election ‘blue flu’

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HILO >> Government documents obtained by West Hawaii Today show state and county officials were aware two days beforehand that most Hawaii County elections permanent staffers planned to call in sick on primary election day in August. 

Four out of seven permanent elections staff called in sick on Aug. 11. Poll workers, control center workers and other temporary and volunteer helpers also contracted the “blue flu” and didn’t come to work.

Thirteen out of 40 polling places on the Big Island opened late on election day, forcing Gov. Neil Abercrombie to order Hawaii County polls to stay open 90 minutes later than originally planned so everyone would have a chance to vote. Earlier this month, state elections officials announced they would take over Hawaii County’s polls for the general election on Nov. 6.

Two days before the primary, the state’s chief elections officer, Scott Nago wrote Hawaii County clerk about worker plans to call in sick. 

“As you might surmise, the Office of Elections was understandably concerned to learn that the services of certain Hilo elections staff will not be available on election day,” Nago said in an Aug. 9 letter to Kawauchi. “We now understand that you anticipated months ago that some election workers might not show up this week or on election day, and as such, you developed a backup plan.”

Nago also offered to help Kawauchi if she needed it.

The letter is among almost 400 pages of documents Nago’s office provided West Hawaii Today in partial fulfillment of an Oct. 5 public records request. 

West Hawaii Today says it also requested documents from Mayor Billy Kenoi, Council Chairman Dominic Yagong and Kawauchi. The newspaper said as of press time Kenoi and Yagong produced what they claimed were all relevant records, Nago had produced only some of the requested documents and Kawauchi none at all.

Nago declined to speculate about whether the loss of four of the seven permanent elections staff caused or contributed to the problems. Kawauchi agreed that more information is needed before it’s known why the election went so far off track.

Right now, Nago said, everyone is focusing on the general election. A more thorough investigation of the primary is likely to come after that, he said.

State Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, said he’s going to ask the state auditor to investigate. He’s waiting until after the general election, he said.

“The reason we are waiting is because we don’t want to add any obstacles to a fair and balanced election next month,” Green said. “We appreciate that the state has taken over for the next one. . All that I want is for every vote to be counted. I don’t care who’s in charge, as long as that happens.”

The primary day problems included unforeseen technical and operational problems, including equipment malfunctions and supplies being delivered late to polling places. The issues surfaced Aug. 11 after weeks of smaller problems leading up to the election.  

It was the first time an entire county had hours at all its polls extended. In 1996, some polling places on Oahu had their hours extended because of bad weather.  

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