Chair Rep. Karamatsu, Vice Chair Rep. Ito, members of the House Committee on Judiciary,
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii opposes HB 2588 which proposes an amendment to the State Constitution which would replace the Chief Election Officer with an elected Secretary of State.
Hawaii's administrative officer of elections used to be the Lieutenant Governor until 1995 when the Office of Elections became an independent agency under the oversight of the Elections Appointment and Review Panel (EARP),a five-member panel, with the Presitdent of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and the leaders of the minority caucuses each appointing one member, and the Governor appointing the fifth member. The chair would be elected by the members of EARP.
In 2004, the nine-member Elections Commission was established to take the place of EARP.
The chief reason for removing the administration of elections from the Lieutenant Governor's office to the “independent” body was to remove any perception or the reality of political manipulations of elections. The states of Florida in the 2000 Elections and Ohio in the 2004 Elections, both critical to the outcome of the respective presidential races, are examples of elected secretaries of states who , through their partisan-motivated actions, have permanently placed a cloud over the outcomes of those races.
While the bill states that in thirty-eight other states, voters elect a “secretary of state” who is put in charge of their elections, not all of them are really the election administrators. Many have many other duties, and many of them have directors of elections in their offices. So far, we haven't found any Secretary of State whose sole responsibility would be that of elections administrator.
Under H.B. 2588, the Secretary of State shall assume administrative responsibilty for the Office of Elections. That official would be nonpartisan, therefore independent of any obligations to any political party or to any special interest groups. The question is, “Can there be such an animal?” If we could elect the Secretary of State with required public funding of the elections campaigns, it might work.
But under present federal laws which make limiting of election campaign expenditures illegal, we have no alternative but to allow for private funding of elections. When candidates for the position of Secretary of State begin to raise campaign funds, and solicit other kinds of support, they begin to be encumbered with obligations to people and groups, and will probably be perceived as being sympathetic toward one party of the other.
One of the advantages the independent Chief Election Officer who answers to the Elections Commission has over any Secretary of State performing the same functions, is that the commission allows for a certain amount of transparency with some opportunity for public input. The earlier EARP was as partiisan as any group can get. However, its meetings were open and allowed for full public participation. The present commission started out in 2004 being very secretive and partisan, but since the latter part of 2008 has become more open partly due to pressure from the public, and beseiged by unprecedented problems are facing the challenges more as a cohesive unit.
One thing we do know. This was not the time to cut the budget of the Elections Office so drastically, nor the time to put a hiring freeze when four important staff positions were left vacant after the 2008 elections, and to leave the Elections Office no money to begin the preparations for the 2010 Elections.
We urgently ask you to hold HB 2588 in committee.