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Elections Board Approves Proposed Changes to Voting Law

Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes (File ohoto from V.I. Legislature)
Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes is scheduled to discuss Bill No. 35-0023 Thursday in the Legislature. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature)

The Board of Elections met Monday to review proposed changes to a law requiring some candidates to give up their jobs before running for office. Board officials called an emergency meeting three days before a scheduled appearance by Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes before the Legislature.

Amendments proposed by Fawkes were approved by the narrowest of margins at the Monday meeting. Five of the 14 Elections board members did not attend; five approved the recommended changes to the bill; two rejected them, and three members decided not to vote.

In discussions held prior to the vote, some members called some of the proposed changes unnecessary. Board Chairwoman Alecia Wells declared the changes approved.

Bill No. 35-0023, sponsored by Sen. Marise James, purports to preserve the constitutional rights of government workers by ending that policy. It also sets new rules for candidates running for seats on the Board of Elections and the Board of Education.

“The bill amends Title 18, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 1, Section 2, to allow government employees to run for political office while actively employed unless specifically prohibited by federal or other law,” says language contained in the bill. It went on to say that 35-0032 “would also prohibit any employee whose salary is paid completely, by loan or grants made by the United States Government or a federal agency, from running for elected office even if the employee were to take a leave of absence without pay.”

The supervisor said that provision aligns with the federal Hatch Act. “Under the federal law, all candidates must ‘Resign to Run.’ The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation,” Fawkes said.

The Hatch Act also applies to some state, District of Columbia, and local government employees whose salaries are covered by federal funds.

But one proposed amendment seeks greater protections for military members serving overseas, merchant marines, and their spouses and dependents living overseas with them. To do so would allow changes to Title 18, Ch. 1, Sec. 2 to adhere to the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

This proposed amendment would require the candidate seeking public office in the V.I. to take a 60-day leave of absence.

Other proposed amendments to 35-0023 include disciplinary actions for government workers, still on the job, who violate restrictions about where, when, and how they can campaign.

“I think I agree with that portion that goes with the 60 days,” said board member Raymond Williams. But Williams disagreed with the idea of having the Personnel Employee Relations Board (PERB) provide oversight on actions taken by a candidate’s supervisor.

“I think we should stick to having the supervisor make the determination,” Williams said. His was one of the five affirmative votes cast Monday.

Freshman board member Kareem Francis agreed with Williams.

“I am in favor of the bill, the amendments as prepared by Senator James. I do agree with most of the recommendations proposed by Supervisor Fawkes, except for the PERB,” Francis said.

Board Secretary Lydia Hendricks said she believed a third party should be involved in cases where candidate’s supervisors act over an alleged violation.

“I believe the bill in its original form is best. I think the federal one is a must. Miss Fawkes is accurate on the federal side. I’m glad (the bill) was introduced so that the candidates can work.”

Board member Harriet Mercer said she was glad that Fawkes also pointed out that 35-0023 does not include language about an appeals process “in case the candidate thinks the supervisor was wrong to take them off the job.”

When the motion to approve amendments came up, Williams asked the board to approve the recommendations but to adjust the overseas voters’ provision to say leave of absence should begin from the start of early voting and extend to 60 days prior to the election.

That change speaks to the fact that early voting overseas starts earlier than it does in the territory.

If approved, the bill would apply to all scheduled votes, including primaries, general elections, and special elections.

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