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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Elected elections chief is a good idea


By Jerry Burris

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona is on the right track with his proposal for an elected secretary of state whose primary responsibility would be to oversee elections in Hawai'i.

In the 1990s, voters took the responsibility for elections out of the hands of the lieutenant governor. The idea was this was too important a function to be left in the hands of an elected official. So an independent elections office was created.

It was a "reform" idea that made perfect sense on paper but failed to achieve its goals.

Since that time, the elections office has drifted into a bureaucratic no-man's land, an orphan in the budget process and responsible to no one. The result: Elections, the foundation of our democratic process, have not received the attention they deserve.

Consider the current situation: Budget cuts have decimated the elections office. Contracts for new voting machines are in limbo. The resignation of U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie to run for governor forces a special election, for which the elections staff has neither the money, the equipment nor the time to accomplish comfortably.

Now, an elected secretary of state as Aiona proposes would not solve any of these problems. That individual would still have to fight for his or her share of the state budget. But it would make this critical difference: The secretary of state, or whatever title is bestowed, would realize that his or her political future depended on the efficient and effective administration of elections.

There would be no ambiguity.

For years, Hawai'i's election system was under the control of the elected lieutenant governor. While there were mutterings about political influence and one-sidedness, the fact is that elections were run fairly and well. And since most lieutenant governors had political aspirations beyond their current office, they had an inherent interest in making sure things stayed on course.

By definition, that does not happen when the people in charge are not dependent on the success of the process for their own future. This does not mean bureaucratic appointees are not sincere and eager to do the best job possible. They are. And, indeed, there have been some highly qualified and hard-working people in the elections office since it was first created.

But at the end of the day, they were civil service appointees, responsible to virtually no one and unable to move the political system to gain the resources they needed to do their job properly.

Politics can by nature be corrupt. But political responsibility, also by it very nature, has the ability to concentrate and focus the mind. It is time to put direct political responsibility once again behind our elections process and see where it takes us.

It cannot be worse than it is today.