The chairwoman of Hawaii’s Democratic Party apologized for Saturday’s confusing and crowded preference poll, which turned away untold numbers of potential Democratic presidential voters, mainly on Oahu.
“I’m sorry people felt disenfranchised, and that should never have happened,” Stephanie Ohigashi told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday.
Several would-be voters on Oahu told the Star-Advertiser that they were not allowed to cast ballots even though there was no announced closing time at their voting sites. The sites were supposed to open at
1 p.m., and voters said the polling sites were closing as early as 1:45 p.m.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ended up with 70 percent of the votes, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 30 percent.
“I do understand that for people it might have been their first time, and they confused a regular state election with a private party preference poll,” Ohigashi said. “Our rules do not say we have an end time and the meeting continues until the last person in line gets to cast their ballots. The party leaders made this rule years back because they didn’t want to hold them (volunteers) there all day.”
But Ohigashi said changes — including specific starting and closing times for the 2020 Democratic preference poll — could be made at the state party convention when it’s held May 28 and 29 at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel.
“We are determined to improve the process,” she said. “I can see the emails already fast and furious, and No. 1 is start time, end time.”
The absence of a specific closing time, Ohigashi said, “is probably not practical anymore in this social media age.”
But a two-hour voting window in Idaho also did not prevent “a mile-long line of voters out the door,” she said. “What do you do? You try your best and try to make sure people get to vote.”
Party officials withheld announcing early returns Saturday because of an agreement between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, Ohigashi said. They announced 88 percent of the returns at about 9:30 p.m. and then immediately got the final results, except for the three votes cast on remote Kalaupapa peninsula.
“It was a joint decision by the Sanders and Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party to release the results. It wasn’t the party’s decision only,” Ohigashi said. “We are agents, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are our customers.”
All three organizations considered “trickling out” returns, she said, but worried voters would realize who was ahead and might not vote, potentially affecting the outcome.
“There’s pros and cons to calling early leads,” Ohigashi said.
Since Saturday, emails have been pouring in about “how it worked, what could be better,” Ohigashi said. “There’s not going to be any blame. It’s, ‘This is how we can do it better.’”
The ideas will be stored “in a Dropbox for the next crew,” she said.
Ohigashi said she received no complaints from Kauai or Maui and heard about possible problems from only one Hawaii island polling site on the west side where potential voters also might have been turned away.
Otherwise, she said, all the criticism and complaints were generated out of Oahu.
“There were long lines, it was chaotic, it was too hot, no signs, fans weren’t working — a myriad of concerns. … No air conditioning, volunteers who didn’t seem to know what they were doing,” Ohigashi said. “But I’ve heard from other precincts that things ran smoothly.”
Adding to the long lines were “stacks and stacks of new membership forms of people who signed up that day.”
“Maybe there was a bit of disorganization, or people didn’t think it would be a big turnout — ‘It’s Saturday, it’s Easter,’” Ohigashi said. “Maybe some site managers were lulled into thinking it wouldn’t be a big turnout. They were wrong. I always expected a tsunami, a big turnout.”
City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi showed up at Manoa Elementary School’s jammed cafeteria and was suddenly pressed into service to collect ballots.
“Wasn’t that a mess?” Kobayashi asked. “It was so disorganized. They expected a lot of people but, I guess, not that many. I was happy to see so many people turn out — that was the good part. The bad part was there was so much confusion. There was no ballot box for Precinct 5, so I ended up being the ballot box. I tried to stand out in the open with the ballots in plain sight so people wouldn’t think I was tampering.”
She added, “It was wonderful having that high turnout, but it was unfortunate there was this confusion.”
Robert Woliver, 68, a psychologist from Kaneohe, went to the Kualoa Heeia Ecumenical Youth Project — or KEY Project — at
3:45 p.m. to vote for Sanders only to find the lights out and a woman who said voting ended at 2:30 p.m.
“I wanted the crowds to thin out, and I assumed they’d be open a few hours,” Woliver said. “I had no idea it was going to be an open-and-shut thing. Maybe if you’re voting for class president, you can do it in an hour. If they had said voting was from 1 to 3, I would have been sure to be there before 3, but they never said when they were going to close.”
Jeff Mull, a 33-year-old writer and Diamond Head resident, ended up being the last person to vote at Wilson Elementary School at
1:45 p.m. while his wife, Missy, 39, waited for her turn outside with their Australian shepherd, Sydney.
It was Mull’s first preference poll, and the experience left him frustrated.
“It was a maelstrom in there,” Mull said.
After arguing with a woman who appeared to be in charge, “She finally said, ‘Fine, here,’ and gave me my ballot,” Mull said. “It didn’t seem official at all. I know it’s a party-run thing, but it just seemed very, very, very sloppy. It didn’t seem very professional and that’s an understatement.”
Mull then had to go outside and tell Missy that he was the last person allowed to vote and she would not get to cast her ballot.
“She’s much more laid-back than I am,” he said. “‘If it’s closed, it’s closed, there’s not much I can do.’”
Renee Confair, a 56-year-old Wahiawa movie production supervisor, also tried to vote in her first Democratic preference poll Saturday and also left without casting a ballot.
“I’m part of the masses who want to participate,” she said.
Confair arrived at Kaala Elementary School “at 2:35, and they were turning away people.”
“I pounded on the door until they explained to me how I can’t vote,” she said. “I said, ‘Our forefathers fought for the right to vote. You can’t tell me that.’”
As she left in frustration, Confair said she counted 10 more people who were turned away after her.
“It was disappointing,” she said, “and disturbing.”