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$15,000 Settlement In Hawaii Voting Rights Suit

By John E. Dannenberg

Dwayne Yoshina, Chief Election Officer of the Hawaii Office of Elections and Genevieve Wong, Honolulu City Clerk agreed to pay $15,000 in damages for disenfranchising 44 prisoners at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) by their failure to provide the prisoners with absentee ballots and to monitor election rights in the November, 2000 general election. After $10,000 was deducted for the prisoners’ attorneys, an award of $833 was approved for each of the six prisoners who submitted valid claims. The prisoners’ claims for injunctive relief against Hawaii correctional officials were dismissed as moot because the prisoners had since been released from custody.

William Remmers, Jr., was a pretrial detainee at OCCC in the months prior to the November 2000 general election. He was a registered voter, and followed OCCC instructions to sign up for an absentee ballot. He was not told that ballots could be requested from the City Clerk. Because election officials thus failed to service OCCC, he was denied his right to vote. Remmers’ administrative appeals alleging deficient voting policies were denied. He sued election officials and OCCC in U.S. District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for disenfranchisement.

The court certified Remmers’ complaint as a class action because there were purportedly 44 similarly situated potential claimants. Remmers also sought injunctive relief to require OCCC to implement a plan to prevent future such disenfranchisement, claiming that although he had by then been released from custody, the issue was not moot because it was “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” The court disagreed, relying upon precedent that held that when “repetition” would require the plaintiff to commit a new crime, something he could prevent, the likelihood of recurrence was too remote to avoid mootness.

In assessing constitutional liability, the court distinguished OCCC actors from election officials. For OCCC, a “heightened pleading standard” was invoked requiring Remmers to show that OCCC personnel acted to disenfranchise him. But OCCC reasonably did its part by providing Remmers with a sign-up sheet. It was the failure of election officials to monitor OCCC and provide the absentee ballots that actually injured Remmers. Accordingly, the court dismissed OCCC defendants and permitted damage claims to proceed against the election officials.

On November 4, 2004, the parties settled for $15,000 in damages, $10,000 of which went to the attorneys. After proper advertising, six responding claimants were approved to divide the remaining $5,000. The class was represented by the ACLU, by and through attorneys John Edmunds and Ronald Verga of Honolulu. See: Remmers v. Yoshina, U.S.D.C. (D. Hawaii), Civil No. 02-00451 DAE/KSC.

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Related legal case

Remmers v. Yoshina

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