Government Sues To Enforce Single Elections Board Law

Arturo Watlington Jr. (Source file photo).

The V.I. government filed suit Wednesday against individual members of the territorial board of elections for continuing to meet and act as district boards in open defiance of a recent V.I. law.

The complaint, filed by Assistant Attorney General Ariel Smith, names as defendants all but one board of elections member: Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal, Glenn Webster, Adelbert Bryan, Raymond Williams, Epiphane Joseph, Lisa Harris-Moorhead, Arturo Watlington Jr., Lydia Hendricks, Carla Joseph, Maurice Donovan Jr., Alecia Wells, Diane Magras-Urena and Ivy Moses. St. Croix member Barbara Jackson-McIntosh is the sole board member not named in the suit.

It cites the 2016 and 2017 V.I. laws (Acts 7892 and 7982) reconstituting the two elected district boards and periodic joint board as a single unified board of elections with the same powers the multiple boards previously held. The 2016 law merges the two boards as of 2018, and the 2017 law amends and clarifies the 2016 law.

The 2017 law mandates by “August 1, 2017, all members of the district boards shall convene as a single board of elections, elect from among its members a chairman and a vice chairman, and establish procedures for the board’s operation.”

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The district boards have not convened as a single board and have continued to meet as district boards after Aug. 1, 2017.

The law also declares the unified board “shall assume and have jurisdiction, powers, duties and responsibilities that were exercised by the district boards” as well as those of the joint board.

Significantly, the current district board members continue to be members of the unified board of elections. But some terms may be cut short in the upcoming 2018 elections.

The government charges the named members with failing to convene a single board of elections. The suit says the law states the single board “is the only policymaking body that can establish the procedure for elections within the Virgin Islands.”

It also lists times the district boards both met and discussed policies and procedures after the Aug. 1, 2007 deadline. The government charges the St. Croix board met Aug. 29, 2017 and the St. Thomas and St. John board met Jan. 22 and Jan. 5, 2018 and discussed policies and procedures.

The complaint also charges the Joint Board failed to elect officers. It states those decisions were on the agenda for the Joint Board on Dec. 22, 2017 and Jan. 26, 2018, but the board lost its quorum in December and failed to act in January due to the fact that “contentious behavior of two board members made it impossible for this agenda item to be discussed and the meeting was adjourned.”

The government is asking the court to nullify any actions taken by the district boards since Aug. 1, 2017, prohibit them from meeting again and order them to convene as a single board and elect officers as the law mandates.

St. Thomas member Arturo Watlington Jr. and other members have opposed the unified board since it was first proposed by then-Sen. Kenneth Gittens.

“Each elected member has the right to their election position and one way or another, this can turn into a serious legal battle,” Watlington said last year.

At that time, Watlington said the law means members elected in 2016 would have their terms cut short because the law calls for all members to be elected in 2018.

St. Croix member Lisa Harris-Moorhead, an attorney, also said last year the law was “invalid.”

“The Legislature cannot pass a law that conflicts with a federal statute. … At the present time, the law is constitutionally invalid,” she said.

In July of 2017, the Joint Board voted to go to court and seek an injunction to stop the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional under the Revised Organic Act, the federal law that functions as a constitution for the territory until such a time as the territory successfully adopts one of its own.

Checks with Superior Court and elections board members turned up no evidence the Joint Board or individual members actually filed suit.

No text within the Revised Organic Act specifically mandates or creates district boards of elections. One passage cites boards of election, plural, but appears to give the V.I. government the power to establish and organize them:

“All officers and employees charged with the duty of directing the administration of the electoral system of the Virgin Islands and its representative districts shall be appointed in such manner as the legislature may by law direct: Provided, however, That members of boards of elections, which entities of government have been duly organized and established by the government of the Virgin Islands, shall be popularly elected.” (Revised Organic Act of 1954, Legislative Branch, Section 6(c))

One of the reasons senators cited for the law when debating it, was to avoid the confusion and legal snafus of the past, such as the 2012 election, during which the two districts established different procedures for counting ballots and handling ballot disputes.

“We have three separate policies, apparently, to adhere to: One in the St. Croix district, one in the St. Thomas/St. John district and then you have the Joint Board decision. So which is it going to be? We’re one Virgin Islands. We need to unify this process and get it done,” Sen. Kenneth Gittens, the bill’s sponsor, said when it was first being debated in the Legislature in 2016.

The Joint Board is meeting today, Friday April 13, and it is likely this lawsuit will be a major topic of discussion.

 

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