Elections commission to probe ballot shortage; elections chief under fire

Hawaii commission panel to probe ballot shortage; elections chief under fire
Published: Nov. 27, 2012 at 7:51 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 28, 2012 at 4:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Elections Commission Tuesday decided to appoint a subcommittee to investigate ballot problems on Oahu during the Nov. 6 election, following testimony from some members of the public who called for Chief Election Officer Scott Nago to be fired.

The panel did not take steps to punish or terminate Nago after meeting for more than an hour behind closed doors to talk about his response to the problems on Election Day.

Nago told the commission said the state had enough reserve ballots but his staff was not able to deliver them to 24 of Oahu's polling places -- 17 percent  -- during the general election, causing paper ballots to run out, resulting in long lines and delays.  About 51 or one third of Oahu's 142 precincts experienced ballot shortages, Nago said.

"People were turned away.  When you don't print enough ballots, when you don't give enough ballots, that amounts to voter suppression," said Marsha Joyner of Hawaii Kai, who has been a poll worker for several decades.

State Sen. Sam Slom (R-Hawaii Kai, Kahala) asked the commission state to fire Nago.

"This erodes the confidence of the public and it makes them angry and it cries out for action," Slom said. "In order to regain and retain trust in our process, we have to do something differently. The public is incensed that our public institutions aren't being led well.  Everybody's pointing fingers like this.  Nobody's taking responsibility."

Carroll Cox, a Mililani resident and environmental activist, also asked commissioners to sack Nago.

"There should be a change in leadership.  In fact a cleansing of that entire office as we know it here," Cox said.

Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi -- who's being replaced next month after problems during the primary election -- complained Nago didn't give her any warning the state was taking over elections on the Big Island for the general election.

"This was a great disruption to the staff, to the county and the way that was handled, I think, was grossly inappropriate," Kawauchi said.

Lori Tomczyk, the state ballot operations section head who Nago sent to the Big Island to oversee elections on Election Day Nov. 6, was among those in the audience during the commission's meeting.

Nago said Tomczyk used a bad formula to calculate how many ballots were needed on Oahu, leading to the problems.  She calculated the ballot estimates based on turnout in the August primary election, instead of the last general election in November of 2008, Nago said, since reapportionment changed district lines from the last presidential election four years ago. Nago said he didn't review her formula or double-check it before the general election because he had no indications there were any problems during the primary.

Tomczyk spent about a week and a half prior to the November election on the Big Island, where she was stationed Election Day.

Commissioners asked Nago if Tomczyk's absence from Oahu hampered their ability to react to the ballot shortage.

"It may have compromised our ability to cope with the issue.  It's hard to say.  Hindsight is 20-20," Nago said.

At Nago's request, Tomczyk -- a 12-year elections office veteran -- has resigned from her job. She declined to speak to reporters Tuesday.

Kawauchi, the Hawaii County clerk who will leave her post next month said of Tomczyk, "When I worked with her, I really liked her. I think she's a great person and she ran the election on the Big Island well, as well as she could. Things went very smoothly.  County and state worked very well together."

Elections panel chair William Marsten said a subcommittee of two commission members will investigate what caused the problems and will present its findings at their next meeting the week of Jan. 7.

"Obviously, we're very concerned about what the public feels and we're concerned as a commission to try to rectify that.  And it's gut-wrenching, along the way, to go through that," Marsten told reporters after the meeting.

The subcommittee will include the commission's two Oahu members – Zale Okazaki and Daniel Young.  They will conduct the probe on their own time, without any budget or staff to assist them.

"It's disturbing" to see voters running out of ballots, Okazaki said. "There needs to be a fix and the fix needs to come soon."

Young called the voting problems "a fiasco."

Reached for reaction to the subcommittee investigation, Slom said "I don't think the public will be satisfied with this.  We are looking for strong, decisive action.  Nothing's been done."

Asked if Nago should be worried that he's going to be out of a job, Marsten, who chairs the panel that will decide Nago's fate, said, "You have to ask Scott about that."

When Hawaii News now asked Nago if he's worried he's going to lose his job, he answered, "No, I'm fully prepared to participate with this subcommittee, provide them with all the information they need."

On Monday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the ballot shortage a "serious problem that has tarnished the election process" and announced he has asked Attorney General David Louie to mount his own investigation of the state's Office of Elections.

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