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Hawaii county clerk: ‘We cannot operate without people casting votes’

America usually does OK with the “free” part of “free and fair elections.” 

"Fair" seems a bit trickier. 

On the Big Island of Hawaii, some voters were turned away from the primary election. Now the island is wrestling with how to handle the November polls. The state has stepped in to try to regularize the island’s elections, but some voters already have lost confidence.

On Wednesday morning, I met with Michael Remen, a sous-chef in Hilo, on the east side of the island, where the air is soupy and frogs chirp through the night. He told me he spent about an hour and a half trying to vote in the primary election. The process was so frustrating — he ultimately left without casting a ballot — that he likely won’t vote in November. The experience impacted his personal life, too. Remen used to talk politics all the time. Now, he says, he avoids the topic because it frustrates him so much.

"I know at some point in time I’m going to walk in to vote again," he said, "but it’s not going to be tomorrow and it’s sure not going to be in November."

In addition to Remen’s troubles, which involved poll workers sending him to a new polling location that did not have his voter information, he said, several polling places on the Big Island opened late on Election Day. Dan Sabo, who volunteered at one such polling place in Kailua-Kona, said his polling place opened 1 hour 40 minutes late because the list of registered voters, which is required to set up the polling station, did not arrive on time. The governor ordered polling places to stay open late to accommodate voters who were turned away in the morning, according to news reports.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser says the state is asserting greater control to try to prevent those sorts of mishaps from recurring in the general election in November:

The state will administer the operation of polling places, the control center, and the county elections office accounting center. Hawaii County will continue to handle voter registration and absentee voting. 

Sabo, the polling place volunteer, says the irregularities mean it would be impossible to classify the primary election on the island as truly fair, even if many voters took it in stride. ”Some people didn’t get to vote who wanted to,” he said.

At the center of this mess is Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, who is tasked with overseeing the elections process on the Big Island. Earlier this week, the state elections office announced it would take over some duties for running the island’s elections in November. In an interview, Kawauchi told me that voters should trust the polls.

"An election is a community event — by a community, for a community," she said. "And it’s the foundation of our democracy, the foundation of our government. We cannot operate without people casting votes."

She said she regrets that some voters were unable to participate, and highlighted several programs — promoting early walk-in voting, mailing absentee registration forms to residents and putting civics lessons in schools — that were designed to help increase voter awareness and turnout on the Big Island this year.

"I feel very deeply a sense of loss for any voter who was not able to vote that day," she said.

But Kawauchi said she is not fully to blame.

"I’ve taken responsibility for it and apologized for the portions that I am responsible for, but I can’t be responsible for 100% of what goes on on Election Day," she said.

"Without minimizing the impacts —obviously people were quite upset, and also voters are reporting that they were not able to vote. On that note. I’m not trying to minimize the issues, minimize the problem or minimize my responsibility, but I do think that blame shifting just isn’t going to solve our country’s problems."

Sabo, who volunteered at one of the polls that opened late on the morning of the primary election, said he feels more confident in the local polling process now that the state of Hawaii has announced it is stepping in to help.

Remen, the sous-chef, remained unswayed.

"It seems like they’re saying let’s throw it under the table instead of fixing it."

Photo: Edythe McNamee/CNN