The V.I. Titling Board agreed to a title, ballot question and summary Tuesday for a proposed amendment to the Revised Organic Act of 1954, what Attorney General Claude Walker called “a historic” change in the way Virgin Islands voters elects members of the Legislature.
The initiative, proposed by the St, Croix Government Retirees Inc., would change the two current voting districts: St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix, into five voting districts and to change the number of at-large senators that voters may elect from one territorial candidate to six.
Under V.I. law, a titling board consisting of the attorney general, the supervisor of Elections, and the legislative counsel of the Legislature are required to prepare the official ballot title, the submission question, and a summary of the initiative proposal.
According to SCGR President, Debra Christopher, the St. Croix based group is seeking to achieve greater accountability from elected officials by changing how they become elected. The initiative proposes five voting districts, dividing both St. Thomas and St. Croix into two districts, east and west. St. John would become a district unto itself. Each district would be represented by two senators elected by the voters in that district. An additional six, territorial, at-large senatorial candidates.
Under V.I. law, a ballot initiative must contain: the title of the issue, the question being considered and a summary of the pertinent details.
At its Tuesday meeting conducted by teleconference, the titling board members agreed to the following title: “This is an initiative to amend Title 2, Chapter 6, entitled apportionment of the Legislature to create District Senators and At-Large Senators and to impose district residency requirements.”
The members had a more difficult time agreeing on the wording of the ballot question, facing a lengthy proposed question of more than 300 words. Under the V.I. law, the question being put to the voters must be one in which voters respond with a simple yes or no vote. To help this process, the language used in this question must be clear, concise and direct, the law says.
The question also must be worded so that the initiative can immediately be enacted without the need to go to the Legislature for authorization, revision, editing or input.
The proposed question, which eventually was adopted,
The board agreed to the question: “Title 2, Chapter 6 of the Virgin Islands code entitled Apportionment of the Legislature is amended to read as follows: “Section 101” there is created five (5) legislative districts in the Virgin Islands with nine (9) District Senators and six (6) At-Large Senators and the District of St. Croix East shall have two Senators elected by the qualified voters of the District of St. Croix East; the District of St. Croix West shall have two Senators elected by the qualified voters of the District of St. Croix West; the District of St. Thomas East shall have two Senators elected by the qualified voters of the District of St. Thomas East; the District of St. Thomas West shall have two Senators elected by the qualified voters of the District of St. Thomas West; the District of St. John shall have one Senator elected by the qualified voters of the District of St. John and six (6) At-Large Senators, three (3) shall be residents of St. Croix and three shall be residents of St. Thomas voted on by the qualified electors of the Virgin Islands as a whole. Shall the foregoing measure take effect?”
Supervisor of Elections, Carolyn Fawkes voiced concerns over the length of the question and the voting public’s reaction to such a protracted dialog on the initiative’s topic.
Legislative Chief Legal Counsel Yvonne Tharpes, Legislative Chief Legal Counsel, said that the wording in the question represented what would ultimately become the actual phrasing of the new legislation. While it is long, it clearly indicates the number of candidates district voters may vote for and codifies the new voting residency requirements, she said.
Board members approved the following summary: “This initiative seeks to amend Title 2, Chapter 6 of the Virgin Islands Code entitled apportionment of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands to create the following districts: St. Croix East (2 senators), St. Croix West (2 senators), St. Thomas East (2 senators), St. Thomas West (2 senators) and St. John (1 senator). The initiative also seeks to create the following at-large senators: three (3) residing on St. Croix and three (3) residing on St. Thomas.
Before closing the meeting, Fawkes went over with representatives from SCGR the next steps in the process. As soon as the Board of Elections has the ability to review the progress made during the titling hearing, the board will send the SCGR containing the most current statistical report on the number of voters in each existing district and indicating exactly how many signatures will be required to get the initiative on the ballot.
Upon receipt of that letter SCGR will have 180 days to circulate its petition. Under V.I. Code, the petitioners must acquire signatures equalling at least 10 percent of the voters of each legislative district, or 41 percent of all voters of the Virgin Islands, and submit them to the Supervisor of Elections. Data available during the hearing indicates that there are currently 48,250 registered voters in the Virgin Islands.
Fawkes suggested SCGR forward the signatures collected by the group to her office on a monthly basis.
Attorney General Claude Walker said the proposal is a first for the territory.
“This is a truly historical event in Virgin Islands history,” Walker said. “The Virgin Islands voters have never had this type of election system before and we are really making history by taking action tonight.”