With the eruption in lower Puna settling into a fairly consistent pattern, state elections officials are considering opening a polling place for Pahoa on primary election day.
“Right now, we’re in the process of getting that established,” said Scott Nago, chief election officer, on Thursday. “We’re in contact with Civil Defense, we understand the situation has stabilized.”
A consolidated location for precincts 04-03 and 04-04 hasn’t been selected yet, but he added that he is “pretty confident it’s going to happen.”
In the meantime, early walk-in voting will be available for voters in those precincts at the Pahoa Community Center from July 30-Aug. 9.
The move comes as the office is facing criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which is threatening a lawsuit, and area lawmakers for previously announcing that polling places at Pahoa High School and Pahoa Community Center would be closed on primary election day, Aug. 11, and that each of the registered voters in the precincts will be mailed ballots. Officials said in early June they didn’t want to delay a decision to avoid confusion.
The decision to open an early walk-in site in Pahoa was made later.
Ballots to the 6,070 affected voters were mailed last week and 48 had been returned by Thursday, said Pat Nakamoto, Hawaii County elections administrator. Absentee mail ballots for other precincts will be mailed July 17.
Nakamoto said voters can still use walk-in voting sites if they were mailed an absentee ballot. Voters can use any early walk-in site around the county but must use their designated polling place on primary election day.
“We have a process in place, even though a ballot was mailed to them, if they prefer to vote at early voting sites, they can do that,” she said.
The eruption has likely destroyed more than 700 homes. As of Thursday, 1,942 households had registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance.
Voters who were evacuated or lost their homes were expected to provide an updated mailing address or pick up their absentee ballot at the Pahoa Post Office.
The ACLU sent a letter a week ago demanding that a polling place be open for those displaced by the eruption and that they be allowed to register to vote on the day of the primary election. The organization wrote that a “refusal to allow in-person registration and voting on election day would not only be arbitrary and unnecessary but would also not survive constitutional muster.”
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, D-Puna, and Hawaii County Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara also sent a letter June 29 urging the elections office to conduct walk-in voting on primary election day.
“We appreciate the effort to do all mail-in ballots,” the letter states. “But with the unprecedented situation in lower Puna, thousands do not have access to mail on a normal basis, and many not at all.”
The letter cites the confusion created by Tropical Storm Iselle in 2014, which delayed voting in two Puna precincts.
The ACLU unsuccessfully sued then to prevent elections results from being released until all ballots were cast.
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa also unsuccessfully sued the office after the state changed the method and time of the election three times in a three-day period. Hanabusa, who was then running for U.S. Senate against Brian Schatz, is now running for governor.
The ACLU is giving the elections office until today to respond to its demand letter.
Nago said efforts to open a polling place on primary election day weren’t in response to the letter.
“It was something we were always looking at doing,” he said. “The letter just came at the time the letter came.”
Nago also said that announcing early on that voting in the two precincts would be done by absentee mail only was the right call at the time.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.