Fix elections office


POSTED: Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hawaii's next statewide elections are a year away, but serious questions have arisen about whether the agency assigned to facilitate the vote is up to the task. The state Elections Commission must determine if new leadership is needed to assure a smooth process that meets legal requirements.

In a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing this week, Chairwoman Donna Mercado Kim asserted that Kevin Cronin, the chief elections officer, “;has not performed his duties the way it should be.”; The Elections Commission has the authority to replace Cronin, and Kim said it “;needs to review his actions all around.”;

Cronin had a rocky beginning to the job last year in a dispute with a company over a contract for voting machines and chaotic administration of candidate filings.

To top it off, he failed to register to vote here until July 25, 2008, even though he began work five months earlier upon his move from Wisconsin. The elections officer is required by law to be a registered voter.

; The office's present problems include state budget reductions leaving it $113,000 short of what is needed to run the office. Cronin reported in July that operational funds had been reduced to less than $15,000, barely enough to pay for electricity, water and other building maintenance for two months.

Kim suggested the money problem was at least partially caused by Cronin's decision to give pay raises to the office's employees with funds that had been set aside for converting jobs to civil service positions.

He also bought expensive electronic voting machines that a state judge on Maui ruled on Monday could not be used because proposed electronic voting methods had not undergone public hearings.

Cronin, a lawyer, declined to answer questions about the Maui court ruling because the case still is pending. He said his knowledge of budget issues is limited because he has relied on the state Department of Accounting and General Services to handle such matters.

Operation of the elections office may be difficult to adjust to budget cuts and still meet legal standards, but questions raised by Cronin's spending decisions warrant the swift scrutiny of the Elections Commission.

In the meantime, the Legislature should consider following Oregon's lead in adopting a system of mailing ballots to all eligible voters, giving them two to three weeks to fill out and return them by mail or at centralized drop-off locations. The system was used successfully in April to conduct a special election to replace the late Barbara Marshall on the City Council, then again last month for the late Duke Bainum's vacancy.

In last year's election, Hawaii had the nation's lowest voter turnout, even with Hawaii-born Barack Obama on the ballot. Oregon's method significantly raised that state's voter participation while reducing election expenditures.