Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024|
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Elected officials at the state and county level are crying foul over the selection of only two Puna precincts for a special election, when many voters in precincts from Pahoa to Volcano were unable to get to the polls Saturday in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Iselle.
Hanging in the balance is a close contest between U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa for the Democratic nomination for Senate, as well as a state House and County Council race.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, say many residents were blocked by fallen trees from leaving their homes. Iselle hit the southeastern side of the island hard on Thursday night, knocking out power to 30,000 homes, toppling trees, damaging structures and flooding shorelines. Some remained without power and cellphone service Monday.
“This isn’t just a county election,” said Ford, whose district comes around the south end of the island from South Kona and as far into Puna as Volcano. “To deny the people the right to vote when they can’t get out of their house …”
Ford, who is term-limited and not in the election, said she expects litigation. Although she in the past has sued the county successfully over election and redistricting issues, she said she herself doesn’t plan to sue.
Two Puna precincts that weren’t open at all will open Friday for a special mini-election. Those votes will be added to state totals already compiled and released late Saturday.
An analysis of Election Day precinct turnout shows an 11.5 percent turnout at Keaau High School, a 12 percent turnout at Pahaoa Community Center and a 12.3 percent turnout at Pahoa High and Intermediate School. Mountain View Elementary School had a 14.3 percent turnout and Cooper Center in Volcano had a 20.9 percent turnout, according to data compiled by the state Office of Elections.
In comparison, Hawaii County’s overall Election Day turnout was 14.2 percent, and the statewide average was 18 percent. The figures are only those who walked in and voted on Election Day and don’t include early walk-in and absentee mail-in ballots.
Ford sent a letter Monday to the state Office of Elections, Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Neil Abercrombie, relaying her own turnout statistics she says show greatly reduced voter turnout in County Council districts 4 and 5, and the Volcano precinct in County Council District 6.
“In this federal election, we need to be very observant of the rights of the voters and assist them in voting over the next few days as they recover from severe storm damage,” Ford said in her letter.
Ruderman echoed Ford’s concerns although he said his concentration is on the Pahoa precincts. He called it “penalizing these poor people who suffered from the storm the most.”
“The polling places were open, but the roads were blocked,” Ruderman said. “You can have the polling places open but still have residents stuck in their homes.”
State Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla said state law allows elections to be postponed in identified specific precincts only with advance notice.
“The chief elections officer does not have the legal authority to comply with Ms. Ford’s request,” Quidilla said.
Repeated telephone messages left with the Attorney General’s Office were not returned by press time Monday.
The pertinent state statute says in part, “If the extent of damage caused by any natural disaster is such that the ability of voters, in any precinct, district, or county, to exercise their right to vote is substantially impaired, the chief election officer … may require the registered voters of the affected precinct to vote by absentee ballot … and may postpone the conducting of an election in the affected precinct for no more than twenty-one days; provided that any such postponement shall not affect the conduct of the election, tabulation, or distribution of results for those precincts, districts, or counties not designated for postponement. The chief election officer … shall give notice of the consolidation, postponement, or requirement to vote by absentee ballot, in the affected county or precinct prior to the opening of the precinct polling place by whatever possible news or broadcast media are available.”
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