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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009

Elections budget a top priority


By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

State chief elections officer Kevin Cronin talked to the Hawai'i Election Commission at a meeting yesterday, a day after he announced his resignation.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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With just nine months before a pivotal September primary, the state Elections Commission has been left with no chief elections officer, no voting machines and a budget crisis that could close 28 percent of voting precincts statewide.

William Marston, the commission's chairman, said the commission would ask the Lingle administration and the state Legislature for money next session to help ensure the September primary and November general election are conducted properly.

The 2010 elections could be among the most consequential in decades, with the potential for contested campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, an open seat in the U.S. Congress from urban Honolulu, and Honolulu mayor.

"The biggest single thing is money, as far as I'm concerned," Marston said. "We've got to find a way to really get some funds out of there, and that just flows backward through everything."

The commission agreed yesterday to accept the resignation of Kevin Cronin, the state's chief elections officer, at the end of the year.

Cronin, a Wisconsin attorney who started the job in February 2008, said he was considering a new opportunity but did not want to publicly disclose the details.

"I will miss all the good people in the election office," Cronin said in a statement. "I am proud that, with the thousands of volunteers and county election officials, we conducted in 2008 what many veteran observers and critics (believe) to be the smoothest primary and general elections in Hawai'i in over ten years."

Marston said he hopes to name an interim leader soon. He said the commission would also launch a search for a permanent replacement with the goal of making a selection before the 2010 elections.

Marston said the commission would likely look within the state Office of Elections for an interim pick. Two possibilities, he said, are Rex Quidilla, who served as interim elections officer before Cronin was hired, and Scott Nago, an experienced and valued elections staffer.

LEGAL CHALLENGES

Cronin's tenure was dominated by legal challenges to a contract for new electronic voting machines that were used in the 2008 elections. An administrative hearings officer threw out the contract at the end of last year, a decision the state is appealing in court, while a Maui Circuit Court judge ruled that the voting machines were approved without proper administrative rules.

New administrative rules could be adopted soon. The Office of Elections staff said the state could receive and act on bids for new voting machines for the 2010 elections by spring or summer.

Cronin has created an election plan that calls for closing 97 or 28 percent of the state's 339 voting precincts because of a lack of adequate staff and budget concerns. Most of the precincts that would be closed are on O'ahu, but some are on the Big Island and Maui, and the closures could lead to confusion and longer lines at other precincts that could depress voter turnout.

An interim elections officer, or Cronin's permanent replacement, could try to undo the election plan, but Cronin said it would be difficult because election preparations are moving forward.

Cronin warned voters to prepare for potential changes to their usual polling places. He said voters should consider an absentee ballot or early walk-in voting.

"Nobody wants this. Nobody in the Office of Elections wants to close polling places," he told the commission. "No one that I know wants this kind of election. But our hands are tied behind our back."

The Democratic Party of Hawai'i, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause Hawai'i objected to closing so many precincts and urged the commission to ask the Lingle administration or the Legislature for money to hire staff and adequately prepare for the elections.

Cronin said budget cuts and restrictions have functionally reduced the Office of Elections operating funds by about $400,000 this fiscal year. He said the office has been unable to hire four vacant positions and to bring on 15 seasonal staff necessary for election preparations.

Jean Aoki of the League of Women Voters said she is disappointed the public has not reacted more strongly to news about budget cuts at the Office of Elections over the past several months. "The response has really been a big yawn, and that really distresses us," she said.

Chuck Freedman, communications director of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i, warned of the consequences of a mismanaged election. He cited the ballot recount in the presidential campaign in 2000, which exposed embarrassing flaws in the election system in Florida.

"This is a state election we're talking about," he said. "Nobody wants to be like Florida."

'EXCELLENT MAN'

Susan Santangelo, who used to serve on the Elections Commission, said Cronin represented a fresh start when he was hired two years ago. But she said he was undermined by legal challenges and political grudges involving the office and received no help from the Lingle administration and Legislature.

"We forced an excellent man out of this system," she said.

Gov. Linda Lingle, speaking during a radio appearance on the Rick Hamada show on KHVH, described Cronin's resignation as "a bit of a surprise but not a shock." She said the Legislature should examine the structure of the Elections Commission, which is appointed by state House and Senate leaders, to improve accountability.

"As you know, he has been unable to deal with the budget crisis that we have and get things done the way everyone else has to during these tough times," the governor said of Cronin. "He's had a difficult time with legislators, as well. He botched a contract for purchasing of the voting machines. So it's been sort of one thing after another with him.

"I'm always disappointed when people resign midway in anything they make a commitment to. I think it would have been a better thing to get this election done."