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Closed voting sites and early absentee ballots raise concerns in Puna

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A National Guard convoy leaves the Pahoa Community Center shelter, May 18, in Pahoa. The community center and Pahoa High and Intermediate School will be closed to voting Aug. 11 with no alternative walk-in location available.

Political candidates running for office in areas heavily affected by Kilauea’s ongoing volcanic eruption on Hawaii island are complaining that the state Office of Elections is confusing voters and unnecessarily shutting down walk-in voting locations on the day of primary elections.

Both Pahoa Community Center and Pahoa High and Intermediate School will be closed to voting Aug. 11 with no alternative walk-in location available.

One County Council candidate is also concerned that plans to send absentee ballots to affected residents weeks ahead of schedule to compensate for the closures will give incumbents an unfair advantage.

“They are basically pre-empting the election,” said Frederic Wirick, who is running for the Hawaii County Council District 5 seat, representing western Puna, against incumbent Jennifer Ruggles.

Wirick is worried that voters won’t have a chance to get to know him before they receive their early ballots, which are being sent out Monday — three weeks early. He said he has two candidate forums scheduled for after that date — one on Friday and another on July 17.

But election officials say they are only trying to ensure safe voting conditions and to make voting as easy as possible amid challenging conditions.

The volcanic eruption that began last month has destroyed 614 homes in Lower Puna, according to the latest official count from Hawaii County Civil Defense. Some 2,000 people have had to evacuate the area. Some reportedly have moved to other islands or the mainland, and while some residents have found new homes, others are staying in shelters or with family and friends.

Wirick, as well as Hawaii County Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, are pushing the Office of Elections to keep Pahoa High and Intermediate School open for same-day, walk-in voting. They say the location is being regularly used and is not at risk from the lava.

O’Hara said that the situation reminded her of the 2014 special election in which Brian Schatz narrowly beat out Colleen Hanabusa for one of Hawaii’s two U.S. Senate seats. The election was decided by voters in two Puna precincts in a special election held six days after voters had gone to the polls. Damage from Tropical Storm Iselle had prevented voters in Puna from making it to the polls on Election Day. The Office of Elections’ handling of the situation was controversial, with Hanabusa suing to delay the vote further. She unsuccessfully argued that residents needed more time to recover.

O’Hara said she hoped the elections office would reconsider opening Pahoa High and Intermediate School for same-day voting this year.

However, Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said he wasn’t willing to do that for safety reasons. In addition to the lava flows, area residents have had to contend with toxic fumes from the eruption. Pahoa Community Center is serving as a shelter, so it could not be used.

To compensate for the closures, the Office of Elections plans to send out absentee ballots Monday to 6,000 registered voters in the two precincts.

Nago said that he’s also looking for a location that can host early walk-in voting in the area from July 30 through Aug. 9. Voters in the precinct also can cast ballots at any of the other four early walk-in locations on the island, which are in Hilo, Kona, Pahala and Kamuela.

Voters who have left the area can re-register to vote at a new location as late as Election Day.

The Office of Elections has sent out two letters with information about voting changes to area residents, but it’s hard to say how many people have received them given the dislocations. It’s also difficult to tell how many voters will receive their absentee ballots.

“The whole process is really, really daunting and confusing,” said Carrie Walters, who is working for Wirick’s campaign.

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