HONOLULU – Cash-strapped Hawaii can’t afford to pay for an election to replace a congressman who is planning to step down next month to run for governor, potentially leaving 600,000 urban Honolulu residents without representation in Washington.
Budget cuts have left the state Office of Elections with about $5,000 to last until July, with a special election costing nearly $1 million, interim Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago said.
Until the state finds money or this fall’s regularly scheduled elections occur, one of Hawaii’s two seats in the House of Representatives will remain vacant.
“Democracy depends on representation of the people,” said Jean Aoki, legislative liaison for the Hawaii chapter of the League of Women Voters. “I can’t imagine the citizens of our state not wanting representation in the highest body in the land to make laws. It’s just unthinkable.”
Elections officials are hoping to hold a vote-by-mail special election May 1 if they can get the $925,000 it would cost. An election with walk-in voting would cost $1.2 million. Whoever wins would become the favorite to take on the job permanently following November’s general election.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, announced last week he will resign Feb. 28 after 19 years so he can dedicate his time to the gubernatorial race. His two-year term was set to expire in January 2011.
His departure opens up the possibility that Hawaii’s all-Democratic congressional delegation could be broken up for the first time since 1991.
Candidates for the winner-take-all special election include Democrats Ed Case, a former congressman, and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, as well as Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou, a Republican.
The elections office faces a series of additional hurdles. It is considering consolidating nearly 30 percent of the state’s 339 precincts next year with adjacent precincts, and it has to obtain new voting machines because of a ruling that the state overpaid on its prior contract.
“We’re not where we want to be, but I don’t see us not being able to catch up,” Nago said.
Some state legislators have suggested saving money by delaying the special election until the regularly scheduled primary election in September. The idea of putting off the election for that long may run up against federal laws and the U.S. Constitution, Attorney General Mark Bennett said.
“I believe there would be a federal obligation to do it,” Bennett told lawmakers last week. “They don’t want the states to go without representation.”