Hawaii preparations for fall elections behind schedule
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
A crucial primary election is just four months away, and the Office of Elections is behind schedule in preparing for it thanks to the special election for Hawai'i's 1st Congressional District seat and lingering funding and staffing issues.
Elections officials say they'll be ready when Hawai'i voters head to the polls Sept. 18, but voters will see some changes this year — not least of which will be a 28 percent decrease in the number of polling sites statewide.
That translates into 97 fewer polling stations in communities.
Planning for the 2010 election season got off to a rocky start last year, with the resignation of the state's chief elections officer, delayed contract procurement for voting machines, and budget cuts that put seasonal hires in jeopardy and led to the decision to cut the number of polling stations.
State Sen. Brian Tani-guchi, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, said new leadership at the state Elections Office and steps taken to address concerns mean the state is in a far better position than a few months ago.
"I know they're working really hard," Taniguchi said.
He added, "Whether that's going to be enough, I'm not sure."
Others agreed, saying they're cautiously optimistic that planning for the elections, though delayed, now appears to be on track.
"We still have time," said Jean Aoki of the League of Women Voters.
Scott Nago, who was appointed new chief elections officer in February following the departure of his predecessor on Dec. 30, said all of the concerns raised during the legislative session, when the office was requesting an emergency appropriation, have been resolved or are nearing resolution.
The Legislature approved $390,000 in emergency funding for the office, bringing its budget to near-2008 levels. Of the appropriation, about $140,000 went to cover some costs of the special election. The rest went to expenses for the regular 2010 election season, including for about 15 seasonal hires.
The appropriation, though, wasn't enough to bring up the number of polling stations, in part because it was too late to plan for the larger number of voting sites.
Some observers worry that fewer places to cast ballots could lead to longer lines and other logistical headaches when voters head to the polls.
Nago, though, is upbeat despite the tight schedule he's under. He said the special election isn't "really taking much from the primary and general" elections and is "good experience for seasonal staff."
'WE'LL BE READY'
Ballots for the special election are due May 22.
Nago added, when asked about preparation for the primary election in September and the general election Nov. 2, "We just want to get through the special election, then we'll tackle the primary and the general. We'll be ready."
Voter participation in the 2010 elections is expected to be higher than in previous years because that contest is shaping up to be among the most important in decades. Voters will choose a governor, lieutenant governor, several state House and Senate members, and probably Honolulu mayor.
"This is big. This is huge," Aoki said. "We'll have a gubernatorial election and most probably a mayoral election."
The league has raised concerns about there being fewer polling stations this year, but Aoki added that advocates recognize the money constraints the elections office is under.
"We have to face facts," Aoki said.
Aoki also said she was worried early on about how the elections preparations were shaping up, but now feels better with a chief elections officer in place.
"We have great confidence in him," Aoki said of Nago. "I think we have a very good chance of having a good election."
There were serious concerns during the legislative session about the ability of the state Office of Elections to put on a smooth primary and general election, especially after the departure of elections chief Kevin Cronin. The state Elections Commission moved fast, though, to promote Nago, a longtime state elections staffer, into the top spot.
Since he's taken over, Nago has addressed several issues, including:
• The delay in getting new voting machines, which couldn't be purchased until the state adopted new rules for them. Those administrative rules were adopted this year, and a contract for new machines with a Texas-based company was issued in March for three election cycles.
Nago said the machines will be ready in time for the primary elections, but he couldn't immediately provide details on when they will be in the state or when workers will start inspecting them.
• Vacant and seasonal hire positions, which were filled starting in February, allowing the elections office to move forward on everything from issuing contracts for ballots and other supplies to training the roughly 2,500 volunteers needed to run polling stations.
• The question of overseas and military voters, whose ballots must be distributed at least 45 days before a general election under a new federal law intended to give those voters more time to complete and return voting forms.
Nago is seeking a waiver of that law for this election, and said he will probably get word in July on whether the waiver is approved. If it isn't, the state will not be able to certify the results of the primary until after the required period. But Nago said that won't affect the general election.
"That wouldn't affect the timeline at all," he said.
The Legislature acted this session to move Hawai'i's primary elections up to the second Saturday in August, to comply with the law. But at the 11th hour, lawmakers decided to make the change effective in 2012.
Taniguchi, of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, said he's concerned a denial of the federal waiver might mean problems.
The state will send out about 2,000 overseas ballots this year, more than in some previous elections, because of increases in military deployments, he said.
"What if there's a close race? ... (The overseas ballots) could mean the difference. We cannot certify" until all those votes are in, said Taniguchi. "It does make it a little uneasy in terms of the November election."
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she'd like to hold a briefing soon to get an update from the elections office on planning for the primary and general elections.
She said it appears the emergency appropriation was enough to tackle worries about how the state would be able to put the elections on. But Kim said she still has concerns, and isn't sure all will go as planned come Sept. 18.
"With the congressional special election" dominating work at the election office, "questions arise as to how prepared we are with the primary."
ISSUES FACING THE STATE ELECTIONS OFFICE AS THE PRIMARY ELECTIONS NEAR:
• New chief: Scott Nago was appointed the state's new chief elections officer in February, following the departure of his predecessor, Kevin Cronin, on Dec. 30. Nago takes the top spot at a crucial time, but observers say he is dealing with it well.
• Tight budget: The Office of Elections saw budget cuts like every other state department, but worried those cuts would translate into real problems at the polls, since they threw into question whether vacancies and seasonal hire positions could be filled. An emergency appropriation of $250,000 in the session that just ended helped ease those worries. The fiscal year 2010 budget for the office was about $3.9 million.
• Fewer precincts: Because of tight funding, the elections office decided to cut the number of precincts statewide by 28 percent. That means 97 fewer polling stations statewide, for a total of 242.