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County elections staff makes sure applications for voter registration meet qualifications

  • Scott Nago
  • Pat Nakamoto

In a state that values access to the ballot, Hawaii election officials pretty much take your word for it when you claim to be a U.S. citizen and thus are eligible to vote.

But, at least on the Big Island, officials are confident there’s little, if any, incorrect or fraudulent representations that would allow non-citizens to cast ballots.

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“It’s the first question on the form — ‘Are you a citizen of the United States of America,’” notes Hawaii County Elections Administrator Pat Nakamoto, pointing to the voter registration application.

But that didn’t stop a now-disqualified state House candidate on another island, who apparently has been on the voter rolls for more than a decade. Sailau Timoteo, who was running as a Republican for a windward Oahu seat, was disqualified from the ballot after an objection was raised by a conservative activist.

“As Sailau Timoteo was not a United States citizen at the time of presenting her nomination paper to be filed, the nomination paper is deemed to be incomplete and void because it does not contain all of the certifications and requirements of the law to be a candidate for state representative,” said state Chief Election Officer Scott Nago on Friday in a proclamation.

Timoteo did not respond to attempts to reach her by telephone or email by press time Friday.

But in a statement published Friday in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Timoteo was quoted as saying, “I never knew my ethnicity as an American from American Samoa gave me second-class status and denied me rights that so many Americans take for granted on a daily basis.”

The registration form requires a signature under the words, “Warning: Any person who knowingly furnishes false information may be guilty of a Class C felony. I hereby swear (or affirm) that all information furnished on this application is true and correct.”

Nakamoto, who’s been an election official more than 30 years, said would-be voters used to have to appear before an official registrar, or someone deputized by an official registrar, in order to register to vote. That process was changed through the years to make the ballot more accessible to voters.

These days, people can register by mail, in person, online, while getting their driver’s license or even at the polls right before casting their votes. The forms ask for a valid Hawaii state identification and social security number, but other documents can be substituted.

There’s no central database of U.S. citizens to compare the applications with, however. Nor is there much government vetting of a candidate’s or voter’s eligibility.

“You sign and affirm that you are providing true and accurate information under penalty of law,” said Rex Quidilla, a former longtime state election official who’s now elections administrator for the City and County of Honolulu. “The whole idea is to provide accessibly to those eligible to vote.”

State Elections Office spokeswoman Nedielyn Bueno agrees the law is clear.

“The applicants that are signing up see that any information they provide is subject to a Class C felony,” she said.

Bueno said county elections offices are empowered to require further information from applicants to verify their eligibility. And, she added, any member of the public has a right to question a candidate’s or voter’s eligibility.

Nakamoto said registration applications coming in to her office are audited by elections staff.

“For every application, staff audits every form to see if it meets the qualifications and has been completed properly,” Nakamoto said.

The Big Island’s voter registration database came under scrutiny in 2012 when former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi raised the alarm that several Hawaii County voters voted twice in the 2010 elections and some people were registered more than once. Kawauchi contacted the state Elections Office and the Department of the Attorney General about her concerns. They were ultimately deemed unfounded and attributed to her inexperience in the office and no action was taken.

The voter registration list is not compiled from scratch each election; rather, it is added to and purged as people join the rolls, die, move away or commit felonies. Each county controls its own voter rolls.

The right to vote in U.S. elections has become a sticking point for American Samoans. A group of American Samoa residents living in Utah filed a lawsuit in March petitioning to gain U.S. citizenship, according to the Associated Press.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider a ruling from a lower court preserving American Samoa’s status as the only U.S. territory without automatic claim to citizenship, the AP report said.

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In 2010, there were 18,287 people in Hawaii who reported to the U.S. Census Bureau that they were of sole Samoan ethnicity, and 37,463 said they were solely or partially Samoan, according to data reported by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. It’s unknown how many are U.S. citizens.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.