Attorney general scolds V.I. Elections System in report detailing thousands of 'missing' votes in 2012 election


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ST. THOMAS - Thousands of votes were deemed "missing" in the count of 2012 General Election results, according to an investigation by the V.I. Attorney General's Office.

The report, distributed to the V.I. Joint Board of Elections on Monday during a special meeting, cited infighting among Elections board members; public disagreements between Elections Supervisor John Abramson Jr. and his deputies, as well as some board members; the "poorly conceived and implemented" re-introduction of paper ballots into the election process; last-minute certification of electronic voting machines; "questionable procedures and errors"; and errors in tallying or certification of counting paper ballots.

"The investigation revealed that the mixed method of voting in the General Election, i.e., utilizing both paper ballots and electronic voting within and throughout the territory, without careful planning, was a process rife with the potential for confusion and allegations of deliberate wrongdoing," the report said.

However, the report ultimately concludes that despite "questionable procedures and errors, the investigators did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that the errors in certification were deliberate acts or omissions on the part of anyone to defeat any candidate for elected office."

"With respect to the incorrect tallying of votes, the investigation has reached the conclusion that the difference between the votes on the tally sheets and the certified results would not change the election result for the senatorial candidates or any other candidates who ran for other offices or boards," the report said.

14 problem areas

The report listed 14 problem areas that the Attorney General's Office suggested that the Elections System, V.I. Joint Board of Elections and the district boards address immediately, especially given the impending elections this year.

"The errors in the certification of the 2012 Election underscore the need for the Election System and the Board of Elections in both districts to put in place adequate checks and balances to limit errors in the tabulation and certification of paper ballots votes," the report said.

The report, which the Attorney General's Office completed in February, will not become public, according to current Elections System Supervisor Caroline Fawkes, until the board reviews the report at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

Fawkes said that, if anything, the report reinforces that the boards need to work together to solidify standard policies and procedures territory-wide, and some district-wide, depending on the nature of the matters.

"It's going to be tricky," she said.

Missing ballots

The St. Thomas-St. John District's issues with paper ballot counts outweighed those of the St. Croix District, according to the report, though both districts lacked explanations for the differences in numbers between the tally sheets and the vote certifications.

The discrepancy in votes counted in the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections race was the most outstanding, with 2,965 paper ballots missing.

Considering that 18,151 people voted in the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections, about 16 percent of the votes were not taken into account, based on the report's findings.

Unsuccessful candidate Jerry Azik Meyers, who received 2,208 total votes, had a reported 359 missing votes, which would have bumped him near to the rank of the next highest vote recipient, Lawrence Boschulte, who received 2,549 total votes.

However, Boschulte also had missing votes - 276.

The unexplained "missing" ballots have not gone unnoticed since 2012; however, as current St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections member Wilma Marsh-Monsanto joined with two other co-defendants, Harriet Mercer and Diane Magras, in lawsuit against the board.

The women, whose suit is ongoing, allege that the board and the Elections System have withheld documentation of the results of the 2012 election.

The Board of Elections race was not the sole race affected, though.

Additionally, in the race for the delegate to Congress, nearly 500 ballots were not counted from the St. Thomas-St. John District.

Nearly 700 paper ballots were lost in the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Education race.

By comparison, the St. Croix District had far fewer gaps in the numbers, with the highest number of missing votes for any one candidate being 10.

Ballot counting

Part of the problem may have been that the ballots were counted in an inconsistent manner, according to the report.

The St. Croix District counted the electronic and the paper ballots according to precinct, while the St. Thomas-St. John District counted only the electronic ballots according to precinct. The paper ballots were divided into batches of 25, regardless of where the votes were cast, the report said.

"The approach used by the St. Croix Board ensures some consistency in the counting process irrespective of the voting instrument used, and it allows the board to use the information to analyze voting trends, patterns, problems and deficiencies to better plan for future elections," the report said. "This type of information is also useful to candidates who may want to know the areas where they are weak or strong so they may decide which group of voters and locale they need to target."

In terms of the ballots that were spoiled during the election, the St. Croix District also had a record of those spoiled, whereas the St. Thomas-St. John District has provided no such numbers, the report said.

"St. Thomas has not provided any summary report, as was done by the St. Croix District, which identified the number of spoiled ballots, although the certification states there were some 888 at-poll paper ballots," the report said. "The general consensus among members in the St. Thomas-St. John District is that there were many spoiled ballots, particularly for the Senate race."

St. Croix recorded 562 spoiled at-poll paper ballots, about 20 percent of the at-poll paper ballots in the district, most of which pertained to the Senate race.

The report attributes the number of spoiled ballots to issues with "symbol voting," in which voters would select a party symbol and then vote for additional candidates which exceeded the maximum eight, according to the Attorney General's Office. Others, who did not use symbol voting, also over-voted, the report said.

The Attorney General's Office recommended standardizing the use of symbols on ballots during future elections.

Educating the public

Because many of the missing ballots were paper ballots, many of the issues cited by the Attorney General's Office were attributed to the re-introduction of paper ballots in the territorial election procedure. Elections had not been conducted with paper ballots - aside from a few exceptions - since 1986, according to the report.

"Except for the small percentage of voters who may have used provisional ballots to cast their vote in prior elections, most voters for the last 26 years did not use paper ballots at the polls on Election Day. Greater public education may have reduced voter error and increased voter confidence," the report said.

Also, had the public been more able to access the sample paper ballots, they may have had an easier time with the paper ballots during the election, the report said.

The Attorney General's Office recommended that the Elections System make samples of all ballots to be used readily available to the public, which would increase voter confidence and reduce voter error.

Ballot shortage

While the St. Croix District had more paper ballots than were needed during the 2012 General Election, the St. Thomas-St. John District ran out of paper ballots by morning at most of its polling sites, according to the report.

"Board members claim that the supervisor of Elections decided how many at-poll paper ballots were distributed to each polling station in the St. Thomas-St. John District," the report said, noting that board members said that they only found out how many would be distributed the Thursday before Election Day.

Many of the polling sites - Joseph Gomez Elementary School, the Curriculum Center, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Michael Kirwan Elementary School and Joseph Sibilly School - announced by mid-morning of Election Day that they had run out of paper ballots, the report said.

They beckoned to the Elections Office on-island to replace the ballots, but only some received replacements, which also ran out, and others never received replacements, the report said. Those that did not run out of paper ballots in the morning ran out in the afternoon.

As a last resort, judges at the sites either made copies of the paper ballots or used provisional or absentee ballots, the report said. On St. Croix, staff attributed the swift process to calculating the number of paper ballots it would make available based on the number of registered voters for each polling place and by "applying a standard formula," the report said.

Infighting

The Attorney General's Office criticized the Elections System and the boards for their relationships with each other, the public and the media.

"The public rift between the Supervisor and his staff, the Supervisor and some board members, and the infighting among members of the boards did very little to build public confidence and goodwill in the integrity of the Election System," the report said.

The report referred to the lawsuit of Marsh-Monsanto, but also to her written complaint about the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections.

The Attorney General's Office also noted that the St. Thomas-St. John District allowed media to oversee the counting process of the election, though no media were allowed to attend the counting process in-full on St. Croix.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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