Very Low Early Voting Spells Trouble for Ballot Initiative

Very low turnout for early voting on whether to increase the number of at-large V.I. senators and create five quasi-districts indicate it is statistically improbable it will reach the 50 percent turnout necessary at Saturday’ special election.

Early voting ended March 22 with a total of 1,967 electors participating, according to the V.I. Office of Elections. The breakdown per district is: St. Thomas – 781; St. Croix –1,089; and St. John – 97. The total number of registered voters in the territory is 51,741. To be binding, the initiative needs 50 percent of voters, plus one, to turn out. So at least 25,871 voters must cast ballots.

Under the proposal, the territory would be split into five districts: two on St. Croix; two on St. Thomas and one on St. John. There would still be 15 senators. The St. John district would have one senator and each of the St. Thomas and St. Croix districts would have two senators. Then three senators who reside on St. Croix and three who reside on St. Thomas would run at large, to be elected by all the voters of the Virgin Islands. This would mean six senators would be elected at large.

According to the V.I. Office of Elections, 7,334 voters cast early ballots in the 2018 runoff between then incumbent Gov. Kenneth Mapp and challenger Albert Bryan, who won. St. Thomas saw 3,646 early votes; St. Croix 3,340 and St. John 348. That represents 14 percent of registered voters. There were only two days of early voting, which reduced early voting totals compared to the Nov. 6 general election, when 11,829 voters cast ballots, or 4,495 more than for the runoff.

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In the end, the Mapp-Bryan runoff saw 43 percent turnout – below the threshold for a ballot initiative. In contrast, there were seven days of early voting for the ballot initiative, yet less than a third as many voters came out.

Early voting totals appear more similar to what occurred in the 2017 special election for the St. Thomas seat now held by Sen. Janelle Sarauw. That year, 1,394 St. Thomas and St. John voters cast early ballots and 4,540 cast ballots in total, both early and on the day of election, for 18.6 percent of St. Thomas and St. John voters.

Significantly, those numbers were for only one district, while the early voting totals in the special election are for the entire territory. Turnout on election day will determine the ultimate outcome. But barring some major unanticipated factor, it would be a statistical anomaly if total turnout for the 2019 special election surpassed the 2017 voter turnout percentage. To enact the initiative would require nearly tripling turnout from 2017. It will be an historic event and one destined for study in political science textbooks if it occurs.

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