Talk Story: Bill Scamahorn

LIHUE — When it came to elections, Bill Scamahorn used to be a skeptic.

”There were what I thought to be shaky election procedures going on,” Scamahorn said about his decision to become an election observer in 1992 after Cira de Castillo from the League of Women Voters suggested it to him.

After seeing how the election process worked after voters mailed in their absentee ballots or turned in their physical ballots at the polling place, Scamahorn said he had a change of heart.

”The Office of Elections, in my view, has some of the best integrity of any government out there that I’ve seen,” the Kalaheo resident said. “If there are election shenanigans taking place, it’s certainly not in the ballot counting center or in the elections process itself.”

On every Election Day since 1992, Scamahorn has served as an elections observer on Kauai, where he and other volunteers monitor the ballot counting process to ensure that no mistakes or errors occur throughout the day.

The Garden Island caught up with Scamahorn last week prior to Election Day, and he spoke about his role in the elections process and how things have changed over time.

TGI: What would you say is the most misunderstood thing about the entire elections process?

BS: Probably the skepticism that people feel when they cast their ballot — they think the ballot might not get counted either at all or correctly. I think that’s probably it, but a lot of that has diminished in recent years.

TGI: What would you say is the cause of this skepticism?

BS: I think it’s just a healthy distrust in government, and it’s a part of living in the United States. We’re conditioned to question authority, in a way, when we start kindergarten, so I think that’s a lot of it. I think once people get involved and observe, they can see for themselves that it’s a good process.

TGI: During any given election, can you run me through your day as an observer in terms of what you do?

BS: The process involves each of the observers, which are about ten or a dozen … actually test the voting equipment and certify they’re on the up-and-up. Those voting machines get distributed to the various polling centers. Each one is sealed with a unique seal that’s not broken until Election Day at the polling place and that’s verified — it’s a verification process in which all of the machines are sealed and broken on Election Day at the polling places. I show up at the ballot counting center on Election Day at about 8 o’clock in the morning, and it starts with opening the sealed can — it’s actually a steel box — and verifying the same seals are on there that were sealed when the test took place, so it’s all verified. The box is opened and the test ballots are redistributed to the observers, and they’re run through the machines that are remaining in the ballot counting center, and that’s the machine that counts the mail-in absentee ballots. There’s two ways that the ballots are counted — one is at the polling place on the machine you’re voting on and then the absentee mail-in ballots are counted at the counting center under the auspices of the Office of Elections — and observers observe the whole process. As long as there’s live ballots in the room, there has to be an observer present everywhere, and any time there’s any live ballots exposed. It’s a long, long fairly boring day. … The night doesn’t conclude for me until the election is actually over, and I’ve stayed as late as 2 in the morning.

TGI: During the time that you have served as an observer, have you noticed any violations of any kind or has everything gone seamlessly?

BS: It’s very well organized. I never noticed any flagrant violations. There’s mistakes made from time to time and those are always resolved. There were some questions back in the mid- to late-90s about the integrity of the actual machines that were being used, so that’s why they had ballot recounts in 1998, but it turned out that were was not much to that. I’ve never seen any violations at all and that has led me to become a little bit complacent — I try to fight complacency.

TGI: For anybody wanting to become involved as an observer, is there any kind of training that they need?

BS: Yes, they encourage people to please get involved in the elections process and be an observer. We’ve got two or three new observers this year. It’s wonderful to see, especially when young people get involved. There’s some brief training involved.

TGI: From your perspective, why is an observer so important to have in the elections process?

BS: I believe we’re the most important role of all in the elections process because they’re the ones who ensure the integrity of the election. They’re the people who actually certify the election has taken place cleanly, fairly and openly. They used to try to recruit people from every political party to ensure that every political party was represented in the counting center, but that’s kind of gone by the board because it’s so difficult to find people from each one.

TGI: Has there been difficulty over the years in recruiting observers?

BS: My view over the past 22 years that I’ve been involved with it is that it has always been difficult to recruit people — there’s no more or no less now than there was then. It’s nice because we found a few good people this year, so it looks to me like they’re doing pretty well in recruiting this year.

TGI: Why do believe there has always been a difficulty in recruiting observers?

BS: I believe that’s because people are complacent, for one thing. People don’t want to give up an entire day of their life to go do this, and it’s a day like no other day for an observer. I mean, it’s not like my regular day, that’s for sure.

TGI: What is the most rewarding part about what you do?

BS: It’s like I’ve said, it’s a very important role that needs to be done, and I find it interesting, to tell you the truth. I like watching the election process. I think it’s almost a sacred process, and I think the integrity needs to be guarded — that’s why I do it.

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