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DeCoite leads Ritte by 91 votes as recount is planned

Incumbent winning on Molokai and Lanai, Ritte takes East Maui

LYNN DECOITE

Rep. Lynn DeCoite rode a strong showing on Molokai and Lanai to a 91-vote lead over Walter Ritte in the Democratic primary for House District 13, though neither was ready to call the race with a mandatory recount planned for today.

In the closest Maui County contest of the election, DeCoite came in with 3,243 votes, or 48.2 percent, to Ritte’s 3,152 votes, or 46.9 percent, as of the fourth printout at 11:38 a.m. Sunday.

Maui County Clerk Kathy Kaohu said Sunday that the numbers were final; however, state law requires a recount of any race with a margin equal to or less than 100 votes or one-quarter of one percent of the total number of votes cast for the contest, whichever is greater.

“I’m just standing by and waiting,” DeCoite said Sunday. “No matter what happens, the people gotta decide, and the people gotta want you there.”

Ritte offered his congratulations to DeCoite on Facebook but also told The Maui News that he wasn’t officially conceding just yet.

WALTER RITTE

“I’m going to wait and see what happens tomorrow,” Ritte said.

He added that he wouldn’t challenge the results if he was still behind after the recount.

Kaohu also said that there are more than 500 ballots that are unsigned or contain mismatching signatures. Voters have five business days after the close of the polls to fix the issue. Kaohu wasn’t sure how many were in District 13, “but I’m curious to see,” she said.

The race between DeCoite and Ritte proved tight from the start, with DeCoite taking the lead after the first printout at 6:31 p.m. with 2,717 votes, or 48.4 percent, to Ritte’s 2,613 votes, or 46.5 percent.

By the second printout at 9:33 p.m., Ritte had cut DeCoite’s lead to 29 votes and a fraction of a percentage point. She held a slim advantage with 2,760 votes, or 47.8 percent, to Ritte’s 2,731 votes, or 47.2 percent.

Both candidates stayed up late into the evening awaiting the third round of results, which was delayed in part by a delivery of 125 ballots from Hana, but eventually they had to call it a night with the final tally still hours away.

“When we went to bed, we were like 29 votes shy, and we said, ‘Wow, we have a chance, cause they haven’t finished counting,’ “ Ritte said. “When we got up at 4:30 in the morning, we found out that it went all the way up to 91, so it got even worse.”

DeCoite, who arose early to feed the animals and work on her farm, discovered her lead had widened overnight.

“It felt good, but again, they have to be validated, so we just gotta wait and see,” DeCoite said.

The incumbent lawmaker was helped in part by a surge in Molokai and Lanai ballots — about 672 between the second and fourth printouts — where she claimed a decisive advantage over Ritte. DeCoite won all five precincts on the candidates’ home island of Molokai and collected a total of 1,485 votes, or 69.7 percent, to Ritte’s 585 votes, or 27.4 percent, according to precinct data as of Sunday. On Lanai, she earned 402 votes, or 64.3 percent, to Ritte’s 144 votes, or 23 percent. (The remaining ballots were blank or over votes.)

East Maui voters, by contrast, favored Ritte over DeCoite, giving him 2,423 votes, or 61 percent, to her 1,356 votes, or 34 percent. Ritte’s top showing was in the precinct that covers Haiku to Kailua and historically has produced some of the best turnout countywide. There he earned 1,629 votes to DeCoite’s 904 votes, which also was her highest single-precinct total, followed by Kaunakakai, where she gained 698 votes.

The incumbent lawmaker said Sunday that she expected a close race, given that she hadn’t been dedicated fully to campaigning with the COVID-delayed legislative session extended through July.

“The focus stayed, again, with the constituents, who were still suffering from unemployment,” she said. “I kind of expected that because I know that he was heavily campaigning in Maui. . . . I didn’t have the opportunity to campaign on Maui, didn’t have the opportunity to do social media.”

DeCoite, who comes from a family of Molokai sweet potato farmers, and Ritte, a longtime activist for Native Hawaiian and environmental causes, are both well-known figures on Molokai. When asked why she thought she did better on their home island, DeCoite said, “I think because people realize who we both are and what we both stand for.”

“It just reflects what people think about us on an island that we’ve lived on for so long,” she said.

The results surprised Ritte, who “thought we would come at least even on Molokai.”

“We lost every single district on Molokai, so that really surprised us,” he said. “We need to go back and figure out what happened. What happened when we were so wrong in our estimations?”

One of Ritte’s theories is that the pandemic diverted voters’ attention away from politics and more towards worries of unemployment and health, making it tough for new candidates to break through.

“It was easy for the incumbents to say, well, we brought in millions of dollars, all that CARES (Act) money,” Ritte said. “And that was easy to understand. Now you helping them for something they really care about. And the people who are challenging (incumbents) cannot make that kind of statements.”

Ritte also said that the election took place at a time when he’s been trying to transition from “playing defense” — stopping luxury developments, protecting the shoreline — to “playing offense,” by proactively getting involved in the sale of Molokai Ranch, for example.

“It hasn’t really caught on yet in the community, so people still see me as being somebody who is playing defense, and at this time, that’s not a very popular position to be in,” he said.

Ritte said his success in East Maui may have come out of the one campaign event he was able to hold on Maui, in which he drove from Paia to Hana to meet with constituents. He said he ran into several people in Hana who “were very instrumental in the Kahoolawe movement, so it was like saying hello to all of my old friends.”

Votes cast for DeCoite and Ritte exceeded the turnout of the last House District 13 Democratic primary, going from 5,196 in 2018 to 6,727 this year, an increase of about 29.5 percent.

Once the results of the race are finalized, the winner will advance to the Nov. 3 general election against Republican Robin Vanderpool, who finished with 304 votes, or 38.3 percent, and 488 blank votes, or 61.5 percent, and Aloha Aina candidate Theresa Kapaku, who had 83 votes, or 79 percent, and 22 blank votes, or 21 percent, as of Sunday.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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