“If you don’t know the game of basketball and you’re going to run a tournament, good luck.” Those were the words of Hawaii County Council Member Dennis Onishi, who spoke before the state Elections Commission at a routine meeting Wednesday. He was alluding to primary election day fiascos on the Big Island that culminated in the delayed opening of 13 polling places. State elections officials blamed the mishaps on Hawaii County clerk Jamae Kawauchi. She’s been on the job since 2010, but this is her first election. Everyone at the meeting — commissioners, election officials, other county clerks — agreed that Kawauchi’s inexperience in running elections fueled the problems. Yet Kawauchi was the only county clerk not in attendance Wednesday. Those who testified before the commission, including Onishi, suggested that state elections officials ought to send an expert to Kawauchi’s office who can facilitate election-day preparation and implementation. Onishi estimated that only one employee currently working in Hawaii County’s Elections Office has run an election before. But commissioners and state elections chief Scott Nago emphasized that they can’t force that on Kawauchi. She herself must be the one who seeks assistance, said Nago.
Onishi jokingly told Civil Beat after the meeting that he rated the gathering a 4.5 out of 10. “Yes, it’s great that they listened to my concerns, but I really don’t think that anything’s going to happen,” he said, noting that he had attended as a private citizen. “Like they mentioned, they (commissioners and state elections officials) don’t have the jurisdiction over the county clerk.” To that end, Onishi said he plans to draft a council resolution requiring the clerk to seek help. He said that the resolution could be heard as soon as mid-September. And he thinks it’ll get enough votes to pass.
Hawaii County Election Commissioner Margaret Masunaga offered to meet with Kawauchi face-to-face to help her address any problems. Maui County Clerk Jeffrey Kuwada told commissioners that he’d be willing to to help Kawauchi troubleshoot logistical issues.
But officials found themselves in a bind, particularly in light of Kawauchi’s absence.