Late ballots made the difference for Atay

Alika Atay and supporters wave signs of “mahalo,” thanking residents for their vote Wednesday afternoon. He was sign-waving on Kaahumanu Avenue, after learning in the early morning hours Wednesday that he had eeked out a victory in the race for the Wailuku-Waikapu-Waihee residency council seat. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Alika Atay and supporters wave signs of “mahalo,” thanking residents for their vote Wednesday afternoon. He was sign-waving on Kaahumanu Avenue, after learning in the early morning hours Wednesday that he had eeked out a victory in the race for the Wailuku-Waikapu-Waihee residency council seat. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Alika Atay rode an “emotional roller coaster ride” of defeat, hope, optimism and finally triumph after trailing former Maui County Council Member Dain Kane all Tuesday night, before claiming the Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu residency seat in the final results released early Wednesday morning.

“Everybody was just ecstatic,” Atay said Wednesday afternoon. “It was nice to know that it ended on the right side of victory.”

Atay, a natural farm alchemist and a leader in the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) Movement that led the genetically modified organism moratorium initiative last election cycle, won with 23,320 votes, or 44 percent, while Kane took 22,512 votes, or 42.5 percent. The scene was set for the come-from-behind victory late Tuesday night when about 2,300 paper ballots from the Haiku Community Center precinct had to be recounted.

“I was kind of nervous,” Atay said of seeing results from the first two printouts. “But I was hopeful knowing that a lot of the votes will come down to who showed up at the polls on the final day.”

Atay trailed by 1,781 votes after the first printout and gained little ground in the second. He surged in the third printout — falling just 159 votes behind and appeared to have lost the election with 34 of 34 precincts reporting.

Maui County voting trends

Maui County voting trends

“I was at the level of, if it is, then it is,” he said.

Then, Atay said he received a phone call saying that some ballots from Haiku had not been counted and a “feeling of hope increased” within him. He was confident voters in the area, which he dominated in the primary election, would be enough to swing the election in his favor.

Atay’s supporters gathered at a family home to await the results after Akaku Maui Community Media closed for the night. He remained behind by a couple hundred votes after the fourth printout out near midnight, but the final tally that came out just after 1 a.m. tipped in his favor.

Atay said that he enjoyed running against Kane, and that they grew to respect each other. He was looking to extend his “aloha” and to congratulate him on his campaign.

“I learned a lot with him along the trail,” Atay said. “I think there was a moment where we shared that no matter what the results of this election are, the bottom line is we all still live here and we all have family that live here and we’re all here to make Maui a better Maui.”

Maui County Council Member Don Couch (left) welcomes Council Member-elect Kelly King into his Council Chambers office Wednesday afternoon. Couch invited King to the office the day after the election to give her the lay of the land and to help her hit the ground running when she is sworn in to take over his seat in January. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui County Council Member Don Couch (left) welcomes Council Member-elect Kelly King into his Council Chambers office Wednesday afternoon. Couch invited King to the office the day after the election to give her the lay of the land and to help her hit the ground running when she is sworn in to take over his seat in January. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kane could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Atay will succeed Council Member Mike Victorino, who is stepping down because of term limits.

Kihei businesswoman Kelly Takaya King fought off a late surge of votes for incumbent Don Couch to upset the three-term council member and chairman of the council’s Planning Committee. Council members who have had to leave the council because of term limits have later regained their seats, but it is rare for a relative political newcomer to unseat an incumbent in a countywide race.

In fact ironically, challenger Couch defeated incumbent Wayne Nishiki to win the South Maui residency seat in 2010.

Late Tuesday night, King held a slim 136-vote edge over Couch, who had been trailing since the first printout. By the final report, she had extended her winning margin to 1,052 votes — 23,641 to 22,589.

Maui County Council candidate Yuki Lei Sugimura waits for final election results outside the Akaku Maui Community Media studios in Kahului on election night Tuesday. She narrowly defeated Napua Greig-Nakasone for the council’s Upcountry residency seat. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui County Council candidate Yuki Lei Sugimura waits for final election results outside the Akaku Maui Community Media studios in Kahului on election night Tuesday. She narrowly defeated Napua Greig-Nakasone for the council’s Upcountry residency seat. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“My whole computer is blowing up with all the Facebook messages and a lot of people are congratulating me,” King said Wednesday. “But it’s really not about me. It’s about the people who wanted change and getting together to campaign, so it’s a win for us all.”

King said she was scared to make any statement after the third printout and decided to go to sleep after Akaku had closed. She said she began to receive several text messages around 1 a.m. when the results were final. After the fourth message, King picked up her phone and realized she had won.

“I wanted to sleep,” she said laughing. “The last thing I wanted to do was get up and find out that I lost the election.”

In another much-watched race, Yuki Lei Kashiwa Sugimura defeated Napua Greig-Nakasone for the council’s Upcountry residency seat. Sugimura took in 23,263 votes, or 43.9 percent, to Greig-Nakasone’s 22,211 votes, or 41.9 percent. The women were vying for the seat being vacated by Gladys Baisa due to term limits.

“Elated,” Sugimura said Wednesday of her feeling after winning the race. “It’s amazing, I’m very grateful.”

Sugimura, who has strong ties to the Hawaii Democratic Party and has served as a representative for Hawaii congressional leaders, held leads of about 2,000 votes after the first and second printouts over entertainer and educator, Greig-Nakasone. The first-time candidate said she is ready to start her new role but may need a break after campaigning nonstop for the election.

“I probably need to rest a few days because I’ve been running on just high energy and enthusiasm,” she said. “It’s been grueling . . . but a great experience.”

The approximately 2,300 votes in that Haiku precinct that swung the Atay-Kane election had to be recounted due to paper jams on the precinct’s ballot machine, said county elections officials. Precinct Chairwoman Nadine Newlight said the machine experienced jams from 7 to 9 a.m. with about 200 to 300 people casting ballots. She said officials switched to a new machine, but that one also jammed.

Newlight said the ballots did not feed smoothly into the new machine at first, but a precinct official was able to quickly clear the jams, and there were no issues thereafter. She had no idea why the machines were jamming but suspected the humid conditions in Haiku.

“We had someone monitoring it the whole time, and I was watching it the whole time so I know nothing happened to it,” she said.

Votes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. were marked as completed, but Newlight kept the 7 to 9 a.m. votes separate for recounting. When the polls closed, election officials gathered all the ballots and took them to the county Office of the County Clerk in Wailuku, where a decision was made to recount the roughly 2,300 votes cast at the community center.

“We complied with every process there is, and the ballots were addressed appropriately according to our procedures,” Maui County Clerk Danny Mateo said Wednesday.

Newlight praised the “superhuman” effort of election officials to recount the votes under pressure. She said she was amazed by their hard work and dedication.

“They’ve always been good in my eyes, but now I consider them to be great,” she said.

Countywide, in-person voting at precincts accounted for only half of the total votes cast in the general election Tuesday. There were 26,493 votes cast at precincts or 50 percent of the 52,969 votes cast. Mail-in and walk-in absentee voting accounted for 26,476 of the votes, also 50 percent — a difference of 17 votes, compared to precinct voting.

Of the 93,912 registered voters in the county, 52,969 cast their votes — or a 56.4 percent turnout.

More county voters have been opting for absentee voting over the last two decades, according to state Office of Election records for Maui County that date back to 1996 on its website. Only 4,400 absentee votes were cast, about 12 percent of the vote, compared to 32,000 at the precincts on Election Day in 1996.

“For myself, I’m a strong supporter for all-mail voting, and I’ve been a supporter for a long time,” Mateo said. “These kind of numbers just tells us that the time has come to take it a lot more seriously and keep going to state legislators to ask about the process.”

Mateo said it is “very difficult” to manage 34 precincts in the only tri-isle county in the state and that all-mail voting has been implemented in other states. He said his office has to hire about 500 people to work the election, including training them and hoping they show up.

The office was nearly 200 workers short this year, but managed to find 61 juniors and seniors from Seabury Hall to work at multiple polling stations across the county, Mateo said. He said his office went to the Upcountry school to train the students.

Mateo believes the convenience of mail-in voting has pushed absentee turnout because it can be done from home and at voters’ own leisure. He said the ballots are mailed to voters a couple weeks before the election and can be dropped off at the post office or put in their mailbox.

“We need to keep up with the needs of the community, and long lines is really not conducive to that,” he said. “We had so many long lines and a lot of people were very patient and very friendly, and some people stood in line for an hour. It was all good, but I think we can do more by being more open with the all-mail process.”

Mateo said he will most likely have to hire more workers in 2018 when same-day voter registration begins. The average pay for precinct officials is $85 for 11 to 12 hours of work.

“When you break that down to an hourly wage, they tell us ‘I’m not interested,’ ” he said.

Mateo was pleased with the voter turnout this year, which was up 3.7 percentage points from 2014’s 52.7 percent. The number of votes cast in the general election doubled those cast in the Aug. 13 primary election. There were 26,993 votes cast in the primary election, 29.6 percent of registered voters.

“I was anticipating a little higher than that, but just coming off the primary with that dismal number we had, this sure feels good,” he said.

Despite the off-presidential election year of 2018, Mateo hopes voter turnout increases with mayoral and gubernatorial elections. The mayor’s race will be open due to term limits for Mayor Alan Arakawa.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS