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," 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."
Others like Democratic state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim question whether the money might be better spent on education and social services, both of which have been slashed during the economic downturn.
"I haven't seen too many votes in the House that have been decided by a one-vote difference," said Kim, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should be without representation, but given everything that's going on, we have to prioritize."
Several recent bills in the House have won by a slim margin -- most prominently, the Democratic-written health care bill that passed in November, 220-215.
Federal money may be available to help Hawaii pay for a special election.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission hasn't issued an opinion on whether federal money could be used, but it may be allowed under a law passed to upgrade voting systems after the 2000 presidential election, said commission spokeswoman Sarah Litton.
Hawaii would have to ask the commission to decide whether the money can be spent in that way, Litton said.
Separately, about $1.3 million may be available because of a recently discovered accounting error. The money was distributed to Hawaii by the federal government in 2003 to reimburse the state for new voting machines, but it was put into the wrong account, elections officials said.
"I'm an optimist that we'll get through this. Maybe not as elegantly as some people would like, but we'll get through it," said state Elections Commission Chairman William Marston. "If you got any money, we'll take a contribution."