There will be a single board of elections with 14 members; seven from each V.I. district, if legislation approved in the Rules and Judiciary Committee is approved by the full Senate.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens, would reduce the total numbers of members from the 14 members of the current joint boards of elections, down to 9 members. [Bill 31-0267] But after hearing strong opposition from members of both district election boards and after debate among the senators on the committee, Gittens said there would be an amendment on the Senate floor to to bring it back up to 14 members and requiring at least four members from each district for a quorum to act.
"We are the smallest jurisdiction with the largest board," Gittens said. "My personal belief is the board should be reduced," he said. But as debate proceeded, he said he was willing to compromise and that having a single board was the more important issue.
Gittens said the goal of the measure was for the territory to have a single, unified elections board, so that there would be unified policies and procedures throughout the territory. He pointed to controversy surrounding different ballot-counting procedures in each district and long delays in counting ballots in the 2014 election.
Sen. Jean Forde said a unitary board should help the elections process run better, agreeing "the goal is a more efficient board."
Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal, chairwoman of the St. Croix board, said the St. Croix board did not endorse a single board, and Lydia Hendricks of the St. Thomas/St. John board said that board also did not endorse the change. Both argued personalities were the source of any conflicts on the boards, not the structure, and if the same people were elected, the same difficulties would occur. Belardo de O’Neal, Hendricks and St.Thomas/St. John board member Ivy Moses all argued against decreasing the number of members.
Marvin Forbes of the voting rights and election reform advocacy organization V.I. Action Group testified in support of a unitary board, recalling confusion, disputes and policies that differed in different districts in past elections. "In the 2012, … you had two districts giving two different orders on how to handle ballot disputes," Forbes recalled. He also said St. Croix voted against holding primary elections on behalf of political parties, while St. Thomas and St. John did not.
"We also observed these calculated standoffs between the members of the joint board. And what that does, it delays the people’s work like you mentioned, and we have seen it happen during critical times like during the election process," Forbes said.
Some senators opposed reducing the number of members on the unitary board.
"We are accustomed to 14 members and the argument can be made you are putting more power in the hands of fewer individuals," Sen. Jean Forde said.
The St. Croix board opposed making the board smaller, Belardo de O’Neal said, arguing "reducing the numbers would not be a fair representation of the population of the Virgin Islands."
Senators voted to send the bill on to the Senate floor, without amending it. Gittens said there would be an amendment on the floor to change the number of members back to 14 and to set a quorum requirement of eight members, with at least four members from each district.
The bill was sent on unanimously. Sens. Neville James and Janette Millin Young were absent.
One potentially problematic aspect of the bill; that it restricts how many members of any political party can be on the board, regardless of how many votes they receive, was not discussed at all:The bill says "No more than two members of the same political party may represent a district, including individuals who are not affiliated with any political party.”
As a result, one V.I. Board of Elections candidate could win a seat with as few as one vote while another candidate who received many thousands of votes would lose, if the bill is enacted into law. Also, if there are seven members in a district, as Gittens said would occur with the anticipated floor amendment, the board would have to have two non-partisan members and members of three political parties, regardless of the wishes and votes of the actual voters.
This restriction could result in candidates who received only a handful of votes being declared "winners" while other candidates who had the support of thousands more V.I. voters than them would "lose" and not receive a seat on the board. If not enough candidates of enough parties actually run for office, the election could have a situation where there is no possible outcome that does not violate the statute.
Taking actual recent vote tallies as an example: In 2014, five candidates ran for St. Croix board seats. Unaligned candidate Adelbert Bryan received 4,898 votes; Democrat Rupert Ross received 4,552; Democrat Barbara Jackson-McIntosh received 4,441; Democrat Raymond Williams received 4,342 and ICM candidate Epiphane "Joe" Joseph received 2,033.
Under the bill as it currently stands, with a nine-member board, the board would have staggered terms with either three or four St. Croix candidates up for election every two years. To keep it simple, say all four seats are open. Then the top three vote-getters would be seated: Bryan, Ross and Jackson-McIntosh. But only two Democrats could be seated, so Joseph, with 2,033 voters wishing to see him represent St. Croix on the board, would have "won" and Williams, who was the chosen candidate of 4,342 voters, would have "lost."
That would be the result using the actual 2,014 vote tallies. But more extreme outcomes are possible too. A candidate could get 10,000 extremely enthusiastic votes and yet "lose" to a candidate of a highly unpopular party who received only one vote- that of him or herself – for instance. The mathematical effect of the partisan quota is to seat less popular candidates over those who V.I. voters actually vote for. While St. Croix Board Member Raymond Williams said he believed the requirement was unconstitutional, when the bill was considered in January, (See: Party Quota Bill Might Let Losers Win Board of Elections Seats in Related Links below) there was no mention of this issue in Monday’s hearing.
The committee also approved three other election reform bills sponsored by Gittens. Two eliminated all reference to the Board of Elections having a role in party primary elections, other than certifying the process. One of those two also explicitly stated that all elections employees are answerable only to the Supervisor of Elections and not to any individual elections board members, while the supervisor answers to the board as a whole. This had been the position of current Supervisor Caroline Fawkes, but was ambiguous in the V.I. code. The third bill declares the election of the federal delegate to Congress will be on a separate part of the ballot and be treated as a separate contest from the local election. Gittens said this would help simplify any concerns federal election officials may have, limiting most potential federal involvement to the federal election.