If the public doesn’t ask, officials won’t tell.

Widespread problems at Oahu polls in the Nov. 6 general election–including ballot shortages at 70 polling places–further eroded public confidence in the Hawaii Office of Elections and led some to question election results.

Press accounts noted that ballot shortages occurred despite lower voter turnout compared with 2008. They failed to ask: Would there have been “lower voter turnout” had there been enough ballots for those who showed up?

“Every single elected official should be outraged, whether they won or lost,” said Honolulu City Councilmember Tom Berg.”

On Nov. 14, Berg introduced a City Council resolution urging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to investigate, passed unanimously. The League of Women voters has also demanded an investigation.

Poll Problems

Out of 140 polling places on Oahu, 24 ran out of paper ballots. In some cases, it took hours to receive replenishments. Even then, some of the ballots delivered were in a foreign language or for the wrong precinct. Long lines and wait times for electronic voting machines caused some voters to leave before casting their votes.

The Office of Elections has maintained that the insufficient ballot order was simply the result of miscalculation.

“The assumptions made were incorrect,” said Rex Quidilla, spokesperson for the Office of Elections. The ballot order for the general election was based on voter turnout for the primary election. According to Quidilla, the office failed to account for “the turnout patterns for general elections, particularly presidential general elections.”

But the specific districts that ran out of ballots have caused some to question the validity of Kirk Caldwell’s victory over Ben Cayetano in the mayoral runoff, as several of the polling places that experienced ballot shortages had strongly supported Cayetano in the August primary. “These areas that Cayetano’s polled strongly in, these are the areas that run out of ballots. … These are the things that are running through the minds of the public at large,” said Berg.

By The Numbers

Of the 24 polling places that ran out of ballots, four were in districts in which Cayetano received more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary election (18 — ‘Aina Haina, 38 — Mililani and 50 — Kailua). But another nine were in districts where Cayetano pulled over 45 percent of the primary vote. Six were in districts where Cayetano received less than 40 percent of the vote. The two districts in which Cayetano received the strongest support (28 — Chinatown and 30 — Kalihi Valley), did not experience ballot shortages.

In the general election, Caldwell defeated Cayetano 53.9 percent to 46.1 percent, a difference of 22,510 votes. Because of the wide margin, no investigation was automatically triggered. But Berg commented that this might be cause for suspicion. “Nobody’s challenged the elections because the numbers aren’t close enough,” said Berg. “But that, in and of itself, may be cause for alarm.

Quidilla said it is impossible to know how many people left the polls without voting.

“We know anecdotally, from conducting debriefs with poll workers … [that] people [did] leave,” said Quidilla. “But we’ve also heard stories of people staying in line. There’s no way for us to know [how many people left before voting].”

Changed Outcomes?

Because there is no way to know how many people turned away, it is difficult to estimate whether it would have been possible for Cayetano to pull in the over 22,000 votes he would have needed to win.

Voter registration in the City and County of Honolulu grew to 474,554 in 2012 from 466,499 in 2008. Votes cast in 2012 were 298,339 (62.9 percent turnout) compared with 308,443 in 2008 (66.1 percent turnout).

Quidilla declined to hazard a guess on whether the results of the mayoral election could have been altered by problems at the polls. “We don’t have really solid information in that area to even begin to opine,” he said.

But Neal Milner, professor emeritus of UH Manoa’s political science department, said that “Ballot shortages have nothing to do with it at all.” Rather, Milner told the Weekly, he thinks the outcome can be attributed to an aggressive anti-Cayetano campaign by Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP) and the differing compositions of primary- and general-election voter pools.

Inadequate Investigation

As of this writing, the state elections commission was to meet Nov. 27 regarding ballot shortages–one day after the end of the 20-day period in which candidates may contest election results.

“Why is the investigation after the 20-day contested filing period?” Berg questioned. He warned that voters shouldn’t assume that, because Cayetano conceded, the election was fair. “[People think] the candidates should say something; Cayetano should say something. … But the guy’s got too much class,” he said.

Berg also asserted that an investigation by the elections commission is insufficient.

“This should be with the state’s attorney general’s office. There should be a federal investigation. The last thing we need is an [investigation by an] elections commission that could be part of the problem,” Berg said, noting that voters already have low confidence in elected officials and their priorities.

Quidilla agreed that it is unacceptable to run out of ballots. “Our job is to ensure the public that if you go to the polling place, we have a ballot for you,” he said. But he defended his office’s response. “I think we’ve rightfully owned up to the error, and quickly,” he said.

Better Luck Next Time

Quidilla stated that changes will be made in future elections to ensure ballot supply. He also said he understood that voters might be skeptical of reforms being conducted by the same people who demonstrated poor judgment regarding the 2012 election.

But Berg said that simply gauging better for future elections is not enough, because voters who were frustrated this year may not turn out in future elections.

Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of reports on the 2012 elections.