Hawaii's chief elections officer on Tuesday proposed closing more than a quarter of the state's polling places in response to deep budget cuts imposed by the Legislature and the state's governor. Then he abruptly resigned.
Kevin Cronin, who has been battered by criticism from legislators and others, sent resignation letters to members of the state Elections Commission on Tuesday, said the panel's chairman, William Marston.
Cronin did not explain the reasoning for his decision, which is effective Dec. 31, Marston said. Cronin was unavailable for comment.
The resignation throws the agency into some turmoil 10 months before it is to conduct a major election in which voters will choose party nominees in races for governor, two U.S. House seats and state legislative offices.
Cronin was hired in February 2008, and was lauded for his handling of the 2008 elections. But he has been under fire recently for various missteps, his management style and his knowledge of elections procedures and budgeting.
Cronin's plan would shut 97 of the 339 polling places the state operated during the 2008 elections.
The cuts are the result of budget reductions and legislative spending restrictions that are hampering the tiny agency, he said. Hawaii is facing a nearly billion-dollar shortfall over the next 19 months, a deficit that has led to layoffs and worker furloughs elsewhere in state government.
Of the 97 polling places proposed to be shuttered, 76 are on Oahu, the state's most populous island; 18 are on the Big Island; and three are on Maui. No polling places in Kauai would be affected. In an earlier draft report released in June, the agency proposed closing 66 polling places, all of them on Oahu.
"In short, the 14 current elections office staff cannot do the same election preparation work for the 2010 elections that 33 elections office staff previously performed for the 2008 elections, no matter what others may believe or critics may say," Cronin wrote.
Jean Aoki, the legislative liaison for the League of Women Voters, said she understands the severity of the agency's financial squeeze. But the closure of so many polling places isn't acceptable, she said.
"The dedicated voter will go and vote, but those who would have voted if it had been more convenient, that's who we lose probably," she said.
Cronin's plan also called for increased efforts to encourage voters to cast absentee ballots by mail or to vote early at designated polling places.
Nikki Love of Hawaii Common Cause, the state affiliate of a national public advocacy group, said it's unclear how the agency can pay for an improved voter education program.
Cronin has been warning for months that budget cuts and legislative spending restrictions will leave his agency with too little money to adequately execute the 2010 elections.
In his plan Tuesday, Cronin said his office cannot fill four crucial full-time positions or hire 15 seasonal workers. Hiring requests sent to Gov. Linda Lingle's office have not been approved, and federal funds cannot be used to fill the positions, he said.
"This lost time in filling our vacant positions significantly handicaps the elections office's staff and the county elections administrators' capacity to organize and plan for the elections," Cronin wrote.
Cronin was not asked to quit, Marston said. The commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday at the state Capitol and may discuss the resignation in executive session, he said.
"There are people (in the office) who have dealt with elections before," Marston said. "We're short handed but we'll deal with it."