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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Elections office exemplifies state snafus

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The state Office of Elections has multiple difficulties, including a lack of funds, a lack of organization and a lack of independence.


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You can tell a lot about a government by how it does the most basic things, and a look at how our state runs elections illustrates why Hawai'i is struggling on so many fronts.

Three months into an election year in which we'll elect a governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator and likely a new mayor of Honolulu, we don't have a firm date for the primary election.

The current Sept. 18 date is at odds with a new federal law requiring ballots to be sent to overseas and military voters 45 days before the Nov. 2 general election, and the state Office of Elections is just getting around to asking for a waiver that may or may not be granted.

Legislators are awaiting an answer before moving a bill to change the primary date, leaving candidates hanging about when the balloting will be. Those subject to resign-to-run laws, such as Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, are also left wondering when they'd have to step down.

That's just the beginning of our elections woes. The Office of Elections is under interim leadership again after Kevin Cronin was the second elections chief elbowed out in the last two voting cycles.

Six months before the primary election, the elections office is just now soliciting bids for voting machines following extended legal limbo.

The office is virtually penniless after Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature bled its budget to force Cronin's hand, to the point that Lingle had to transfer school-repair funds to pay for a May 22 special election to fill the 1st Congressional District seat vacated by Neil Abercrombie.

The Office of Elections' supposed independence from political interference has been seriously breached by the budget bleeding and a heavy-handed effort by some legislators to force postponement of the May 22 special election.

And, oh yes, Hawai'i's voter participation is at a record low.

Organizational disorder and squabbles over fairness and competence have occurred since the Legislature established the Office of Elections by statute in 1995.

It's time to recognize that we fixed something that wasn't broke and now it is.

Running elections was taken away from the lieutenant governor out of a perceived need to remove politics from the process, but there were few serious allegations of political interference when the LG was in charge and many since.

One of the most blatant displays was a recent House hearing in which lawmakers pressured the Office of Elections to postpone the May 22 special election despite the attorney general's advice that leaving half the state's residents disenfranchised in Congress would likely be illegal.

We're left with the worst recipe for organizational dysfunction and political mischief an elections office that is neither truly independent nor clearly accountable.

One possible fix would be to provide real independence by giving the Office of Elections a dedicated source of funding so it wouldn't have to grovel to the Legislature and governor and could make long-term plans to eliminate the chaos.

The other way would be to recognize that it's impossible to remove politics from anything in Hawai'i and put an accountable elected official in charge of elections so voters have recourse when things go wrong.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona proposed an elected secretary of state to run elections, but a better solution is to give it back to the lieutenant governor, who has few other constitutional responsibilities and did the job fine until the system was changed.

The Office of Elections is a small example of the structural obstacles that bedevil many of Hawai'i's public institutions. If we can untangle this, it could point the way to what needs to be done on our bigger challenges like the public schools.

Correction: The state Legislature established the Office of Elections by statute in 1995. A previous version of this story had the wrong information about how it was established.