Hawai'i election reforms lagging
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief
Despite several election controversies in recent years, a commission set up to review state election laws and press for reforms before the critical 2002 voting has stalled and may not be able to propose changes in time.
Senate Republican Leader Sam Slom still has not formally appointed a member to the commission, and Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (Wahiawa, Waialua, Sunset Beach), didn't appoint two commission members until Nov. 16, according to state elections officials.
The late appointments have prompted state Chief Election Officer Dwayne Yoshina to warn lawmakers that the eight-member commission won't have time to conduct a thorough review of election laws, hold statewide hearings and report back to legislators by its deadline late next month.
At least one commission member and some election reform advocates are unhappy with the development and hope the panel can still meet and make recommendations.
Commission member Kitty Lagareta, communications chairwoman for Republican Linda Lingle in the 1998 governor's race, said she is "very disappointed."
"This stuff, it's like it's not important, and this whole process always gets rushed," said Lagareta, who was also an official election observer in the 2000 voting.
"It's just real critical to me personally that we have the time to look at things and make any changes we need to make during the next legislative session or operationally if they don't require legislation, so we're ready for 2002," she said. "It's going to be a very big year."
Bunda said he does not expect that the commission will have time to make recommendations to the Legislature in time for changes to be made before the election. "We can strive for something to come out, but I don't think so," he said.
Bunda said he made his appointments late in the year because it was difficult to find people who had experience with elections and elections law and who were willing to serve.
Slom, R-8th (Wai'alae Iki, Hawai'i Kai), said he has made his appointment, but didn't submit it in writing. He said he had been informed he could simply tell the governor whom he selected.
In any event, Slom said he thinks the commission should still make recommendations to the Legislature next year because he feels there's time before the elections.
"I would like to see what kind of recommendations come forward first of all, and then find out if there are time constraints or anything else that we have to do," Slom said.
The elections process has been a particularly sensitive subject since 1998, when seven vote-counting machines malfunctioned during the primary. Lingle and her supporters questioned irregularities.
The Legislature ordered a statewide recount, which verified the results of every race.
The percentage of people of voting age in Hawai'i who actually voted in the 2000 election was the lowest in the nation, and commission member Jean Aoki said she wants to look into how the state can increase turnout. Aoki is legislative chairman of the League of Women Voters in Hawai'i.
Another issue has been primary election ballots that are spoiled when people attempt to vote for candidates in more than one party.
More than 9,300 ballots were spoiled in last year's primary, which prompted Gov. Ben Caye-
tano and others to suggest that the state provide separate ballots for each party or expand voter education.
State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa said she wanted the commission to look into the issue of mandatory recounts in close contests. A 1999 audit found that Hawai'i was the only state without a requirement for an outright recount.
"We saw that whole issue come to life in Florida with how the president of the United States was selected," said Hanabusa D-21st (Barbers Point, Makaha). "For this upcoming election, which is probably going to be one of the most critical ones in the history of the state ... we still don't have a clear reading as to what will happen in the event that the votes are close."
The law that created the commission provided $100,000 to pay for staff and to hold a series of hearings around the state. The law disbands the commission when the Legislature adjourns next spring, but Bunda said it should be allowed to continue its work after the Legislature adjourns
"It's not short-term, it's long-term kind of stuff," Bunda said. "It has long-term effects, so although we got a late start, it doesn't preclude us from moving forward."
State Sen. Les Ihara, D-10th (Waikiki, Kaimuki), said he wants the commission to look into ways to allow people to register to vote shortly before the elections.
Current law requires that people register a month before the balloting, and "usually when they get interested, the deadline has already passed," Ihara said.
He suggested state officials might be able to "salvage" the process by quickly assembling the commission, scheduling public hearings and drafting legislation for lawmakers to consider next session.
"I think it would qualify as a missed opportunity, but hopefully we can at least do something so that it's not a total missed opportunity," he said.
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com or 525-8070.