HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a unanimous decision, the state Supreme Court on Friday invalidated the results of a City Council race won by just 22 votes.
Incumbent Councilman Trevor Ozawa narrowly bested challenger Tommy Waters in the race for that seat, which represents east Honolulu.
But the high court, in a decision released Friday afternoon, said elections officials improperly counted late absentee ballots. The only remedy, they said, was to throw out the election results.
The ruling, however, does not say what should happen next.
It does mean, however, that neither Ozawa or Waters can take office, creating an extended vacancy of the seat, which represents a district that stretches from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki.
According to the City Charter, the current City Council can try to appoint a member to the open seat until a special election is held.
Interim Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said that’s exactly what she plans to have the council do during a meeting the week of Feb. 4.
The City Charter also says if the council can’t agree, the mayor has the power to appoint someone to the position.
Kobayashi calls the situation unprecedented.
Elections officials now have 10 days to file a request for a special election. From the date of that request, the special election must be held within 120 days.
The crux of the case before the Supreme Court was whether absentee ballots counted after polls closed were valid.
In its ruling, the court said 350 ballots collected by the City Clerk at the Honolulu Airport post office came in after the 6 p.m. deadline for the close of polls on election day and should not have been counted.
The court said because the ballots were picked up and mixed in with other ballots that were legally counted, the election’s results have to be thrown out.
Waters was pleased with the ruling.
“I think we filed our petition on November 26. So for good reason, the supreme court took their time, looked at the evidence or lack of evidence, and rendered, to me, the right decision,” Waters told Hawaii News Now.
Waters also said he was going to hit the sidewalks immediately to sign wave and knock on doors to meet voters.
“I walked and knocked on over 12-thousand doors throughout this campaign, and that seemed to work. People want to meet the candidate, want to talk about the issues personally. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he said.
“Definitely disappointed in the ruling by the Supreme Court,” Ozawa told Hawaii News Now. “Every vote should count. That’s what the mantra has been for the past few election cycles and we want more people to vote.”
He added, “There was no evidence of mistake. There was no evidence of fraud. There was no evidence of error.”
Ozawa said he’s already received phone calls and texts of support, as well as new campaign contributions. But he’s also concerned about the cost to have a re-vote.
“It’s going to cost a tremendous amount for both my campaign as well as my opponent’s." said Ozawa. "In addition, most importantly, the taxpayers. How much is this election going to cost?”
Ozawa was poised to be council chairman when the results of the election were challenged.
Because of the challenge, Ozawa was not sworn in on Jan. 2 for a second term.
And with no one in the seat, east Honolulu residents have no representative on the City Council.
“People should still be concerned because they don’t have a voice,” said Ozawa’s chief of staff, Kenny Amazaki.
Up until now, the City Council and Ozawa’s former staff have been moving forward with meetings and business. Ozawa said he hasn’t decided yet what will happen to his staff members between now and the special election.
“We are talking 100,000 people that are not being represented here and we have to keep working,” Kobayashi said.
On Thursday, some Waikiki residents filed a lawsuit saying the council is operating illegally with only eight of nine members.
“They are trying to get work done but legally they can’t pass the laws they need to get the work done,” said Waikiki resident Kathryn Henski.
This story is developing. It will be updated.