Niihau gets poll
booth after years
of mail-in voting

A helicopter will bring ballots
and machines to and from the island

By Crystal Kua

There's a buzz in the air on the Forbidden Island of Niihau as a voting booth returns to its shores for the first time in decades, allowing residents to cast ballots in person at a poll instead of by mail.

Election 2002

Bruce Robinson, one of the island's owners, said absentee balloting was cheaper and faster than when the votes were shipped on a barge to Kauai. But now a helicopter will bring the ballots from the privately owned island where full-blooded native Hawaiians make up most of the 160 residents.

How many plan to go to the poll?

"Nui. Nui ka poe (A lot. A lot of people)," says a 37-year-old woman who lives most of the time on Niihau. She remembers voting last taking place on the island when she was too young to vote -- some 20 years ago.

Why do they want to vote at the poll?

"No ka pono o ke aupuni," she says shyly, only after assurances that her identity won't be compromised.

"For government to be right," her translator says.

Niihau is one of the remote areas in the state where election officials are making special accommodations for citizens to vote and for ballot-counting.

"We will be shipping the machine and ballots over there (to Niihau) and back by helicopter," said Ernest Pasion, deputy clerk of Kauai County.

Pasion said that after discussions with Niihau residents, there was a consensus that they wanted a polling place on the island. Previously, voting by Niihau residents was done exclusively by mail. Niihau has 81 registered voters.

"It's another place that is due a regular polling place," Pasion said.

Plans originally called for the Niihau poll to close at noon to allow for the chopper to ferry the results back in the safety of daylight, but Pasion said the closing time is not set.

"It depends on how many come to the polls," he said.

But not everyone favors the idea.

Robinson, whose helicopter will ferry the ballots and machines, thinks the government is squandering its money.

"If they want to spend the money on it or not, that's up to them, but it's been done in the past by absentee (voting)," he said. "It's way cheaper, way faster. Everything worked out better, and that was the end of it."

By contrast, mail-in voting will be used for the 69 registered voters in Kalaupapa after state chief elections officer Dwayne Yoshina met with residents.

"They've agreed to go all mail," said Office of Elections spokesman Rex Quidilla. "Dwayne flew in, sat down, they held a meeting and that's what they preferred."

On the Big Island, it's not so much getting ballots to remote areas that's the problem -- it's getting the ballots out of these places in a safe and timely way on election night.

"Running an election on the Big Island is challenging," Hawaii County Clerk Al Konishi said. "Given the distances here, any place can be a trouble spot depending on the weather and road conditions that particular (election) evening."

Konishi added: "Our biggest challenge is the heavy rains."

Days before the 2000 general election, heavy rain caused a flood that washed out bridges to the north of Pahala in the Kau district, cutting off the most direct route to Hilo, where ballots are counted.

So the county asked for help from the National Guard, which stationed a helicopter in Kau the afternoon of the election as an emergency solution to help transport ballots to Hilo.

"When the election precincts closed, they drove 'em up to the helicopter and the helicopter flew 'em into Hilo," Konishi said.

Normally, ballots are taken by car, sometimes as far away as two hours' worth of driving from Milolii or North Kohala.

But safety is the primary concern when it comes to driving the ballots from an outlying area. While Konishi knows the public, the media and others want the results as quickly as possible, he won't tell drivers to speed up just to save a few minutes.

"As much as candidates want to know who won, I don't think any of them would want our election workers taking unnecessary risks ... so that they can get their results before the pupus get cold," Konishi said.

The Big Island and Maui are looking at possibly transmitting results to Hilo electronically by modem, Konishi said. They had hoped to get that online in time for the Sept. 21 primary, but now they're shooting for the General Election.

"Even though something in theory is faster, unless we feel comfortable with the accuracy and security, we're not going to sacrifice our top two priorities just for speed," he said.

But he said it shows that the elections process is trying to improve delivery of results, especially from hard-to-reach places.

"And so since the roads aren't going to get better and the speed limit isn't going to get any higher and the weather is not going to get any better, maybe electronic is the way we have to go," Konishi said.

"Unless someone can find a way to fix the weather."

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