Safety was front and center as Virgin Islanders headed to the polls on Tuesday for the first Election Day in memory to be held during a global pandemic.
Beyond the usual mask and social distancing requirements, precautions included mandatory hand-washing stations and temperature screenings before voters could enter their polling places. Masks were offered to those who forgot them, and pens to complete ballots were proffered from a box, instead of tied to strings at the voting booths. Workers checking in voters were ensconced behind plastic glass shields, and the government’s COVID-19 Task Force made their rounds to inspect polling places throughout the day.
“We’re following the Department of Health rules as mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said Judge of Elections Donna Phillip from her desk at the polling place at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center on St. Thomas.
“The voters are very responsive and understanding of our procedures,” said Phillip, who has been a poll worker “for years,” starting when she was in her 20s. “We want to have an infection-free election.”
While some voted early and by mail, perhaps in a bid to avoid crowded public places during the COVID-19 pandemic, Phillip said traffic had been steady at the UVI polling place, with 448 casting their ballots as of the noon count. Lines were scant and moved quickly.
On St. Croix, some voters encountered waits of almost two hours in the sun, while on St. John, the action got off to a slow start before gaining momentum.
As early as 8 a.m., about 40 people were lined up the mandatory six feet apart outside the D.C. Canegata Recreation Center polling place on St. Croix, waiting to cast their ballots. Onika Thomas said it took her about 30 minutes to get through the line.
“It’s my duty. As long as I’m not sick, I’ll be here. I like to come out here – I don’t really trust mail ballots,” she said.
At 10 a.m., more than 100 people were waiting in line – some for almost two hours – to vote at the St. Croix Educational Complex. Just as people were beginning to complain, election workers instructed senior voters to form a second line so they could get out of the heat and alternate with the other line to enter the polling place.
According to the poll worker taking temperatures, about 175 people had voted in the first three hours at the high school.
Many said they voted for change, and because it was their duty and their right.
“The process is important to me. The election is important, and the issue of the constitution is important,” said Horace Magras, referring to the constitutional convention referendum on the ballot. “I did my part. It was my right and duty, and I chose to do that.”
Magras said convening a constitutional convention was one of his important issues.
Retiree Terrance Joseph said he hasn’t missed an election since he turned 18, and these days he votes for senators who work for retirees. According to Joseph, two years ago, senators promised Government Employees’ Retirement System payments to retirees but to date, they “have not seen a dime.”
“Retirees have to consistently, constantly remind senators,” said Joseph.
Naita Salmon said she always votes in person for candidates “that will speak for me.”
“It is my civic duty, and I exercise my right to vote,” she said.
Carey and Barry Gilbeau said they have voted in person for years. This election, they said, they cast their ballots for senators who have pledged to fight gun crime and advance youth programs and work opportunities.
Devon Fenton said he wants to see improvements in the roads, the hospital and the racetrack. He said he would also like to see more programs for senior citizens.
“I hold senators accountable for what they said and what they do,” he said.
Pauline Peters has three grown children born on St. Croix after she emigrated from St. Lucia. She said she has voted in every primary and general election since she became a U.S. citizen, including on Tuesday, despite being unemployed and needing to deal with the Labor Department.
“I vote because I want things to get better. I chose people I believe will make it better for the homeless, the mentally ill, the hospital and in education,” said Peters. “And the nasty roads that are ruining my car,” she added.
Continuing a long-standing V.I. tradition, electioneers abounded just outside the polling places, working to convince any undecided voters as they headed to the polls, and creating a festive atmosphere around the election.
Charlita Schuster waved her sign for Alicia “Chucky” Hansen.
“Sen. Hansen knows what the people actually need. We are living in hard times. A lot of money has been appropriated to the island and nothing is being done with the funds. We need a voice that will make it happen,” said Schuster. “Chucky Hansen makes change. We have missed her for two years. Her platform is for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
In Samuel Carrion’s camp, the backing of the Latino community was clear. Jeeps of supporters traveled throughout the island, waving flags and chanting Carrion’s name.
“I am a father of three kids, and we need change for the generations to come,” said Wilfredo Ferreras. “There is a need for younger, more innovative people in the Legislature. Someone that works hard for the entire U.S. Virgin Islands and that is Samuel Carrion.”
Over on candidate Sen. Kurt Vialet’s campaign site, supporters got creative decorating their tents.
“This will be Sen. Vialet’s third term and since the first time he was elected, he has hit the ground running,” said Samantha Prentice, who held a sign and chanted Vialet’s name. “All that he has done to promote higher education with the nursing program and scholarships. He has been doing so much for our economy by pushing the lower- and middle-class forward. This is just a few of the things that Sen. Vialet has done for the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Prentice said.
Clint Ferris, vying for one of the seven St. Croix Senate seats, was busy making the rounds with his campaign team.
“It’s exciting, it’s a whole new way of campaigning and engaging voters. I am very glad to be on this journey,” Ferris said. “I don’t know why, but God put me here today. I’m so thankful, it has been a wonderful experience and I have met a lot of wonderful people, and I have learned what type of leadership St. Croix needs.”
In contrast to St. Croix, election day morning came quietly to the Calabash Boom Community Center on St. John. Poll workers took their places in a neatly organized voting station that opened at 7 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., they said, two voters had come to cast ballots: one man, one woman.
Calabash Boom was one of two polling places this election cycle on St. John, which after hurricanes Irma and Maria had relied on one, the Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay.
St. John Administrator Shikima Jones-Sprauve showed up early. This was the first year she signed up as a voting observer, she said, and she would make the rounds of all five polling places in the St. Thomas-St. John District.
Jones-Sprauve showed off the partitioned seating spot set aside for disabled voters and proudly pointed to the Voter Express tablet machine.
“This is my favorite,” the administrator said.
Once the voter follows the instructions, the tablet spits out a ballot, which they then insert into the electronic tabulator, sitting beside it. There was also a three-paneled desk perched on a wire stand where voters who preferred the pre-printed paper ballot could fill in the bubbles next to the names of their preferred candidates.
On the west end, in Cruz Bay, a livelier scene greeted those who sought to do their civic duty. Electioneers pitched tables and tents on the corners framing the traffic circle. Others, like Eugene Foy, came armed with a campaign poster and sat on the stone wall, firing banter at the opposing teams across the street.
“Yes, I’m loud and I know I’m disgusting, but I don’t mean no harm,” Foy said. The only reason he came out in support of his candidate was because the guy who was supposed to be there had car trouble and couldn’t make it, he said.
Inside the polling place, Elections Board member Alecia Wells stood next to the portable washing station, directing voters to stop and clean their hands before entering. A young woman armed with a temperature gun poked her head out the door, awaiting her next target.
Inside, Judge of Elections Lauren Williams said there were no lulls in voter arrivals since the Cruz Bay poll opened Tuesday morning. By then, the time was 11 a.m., and the washing station was seeing lots of business.