Elections board members take primaries into their own hands

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ST. THOMAS - The Joint Board of Elections agreed Wednesday to carry out the territory's primary election, taking the responsibility away from the political parties.

The issue of who is responsible for putting on the primary election - the political parties or the Elections System - is a complicated one. Many legal arguments have been made on both sides during the last few years, and the V.I. Code still contains many conflicting provisions, despite the Senate's attempt to clarify language.

At a September 2011 joint board meeting, the board decided not to fund or organize the primary elections for the territory.

The board pointed to the section of the V.I. Code that states: "The Board of Elections will be responsible for certifying the process to be used by any political party to select party officers and candidates for public office."

At the time, the board chairman was Rupert Ross Jr., who said the intent of the law was for the board to certify the method each party uses to select its candidates. The board's opinion was that the law did not obligate the Elections System to either fund or administer the political primaries.

St. Thomas attorney Mark Hodge filed a writ of review in V.I. Superior Court seeking declaratory judgement on the board's policy on primaries. However, the V.I. Legislature stepped in to appropriate money to fund the 2012 primary election, making the matter in court moot but not bringing a clear answer as to the legal question, according to Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Salisbury.

At Wednesday's board meeting, members asked for the V.I. attorney general to give a legal opinion, but Salisbury said an opinion might not satisfy the board.

"We can do what you want us to do, but I'm not sure that it's going to move the process along," she said.

"I really, truly believe that this is a board and legislative issue," Salisbury said.

She said one section of the law states that the board must present a budget for the primary to the V.I. Legislature, which seems to imply the intent is for Elections to pay for primaries.

Additionally, despite language in the law implying the political parties are responsible for primaries, the Legislature has been funding the Elections System to run the primaries for six election cycles, Salisbury said.

"I agree that it was the intent, but that has not been the practice since then," she said.

The V.I. Code contains a measure that prohibits changes to the elections statute within six months of an election, Salisbury reminded the board.

"We're already out of time as far as changing the statute," she said.

Board member Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal, a member of the Republican Party, submitted her party's plan to hold its own primary. She said the only office requiring a primary is for the party's state chairmanship, and they do not want to use public funding for it.

Raymond Williams made a motion for the Elections System to carry out the 2014 primary election and it passed in a 6 to 5 vote.

Members Harry Daniel, Alecia Wells, Arturo Watlington Jr., Glenn Webster, Ross and Williams voted in favor of the motion.

Wilma Marsh-Monsanto, Lydia Hendricks, O'Neal, Roland Moolenaar and Lisa Harris-Moorhead voted against it.

Lawrence Boschulte, Claudette Georges and Adelbert Bryan were absent from Wednesday's meeting.

Spoiled ballots

Also at Wednesday's meeting, the joint board came to a compromise about how to deal with a voter who is having trouble casting a ballot on the new machines.

Each district board had come up with different policies, but Wells said the joint board had to come up with one policy that would be followed territorywide on Election Day.

The St. Croix District Board of Elections wanted to let a voter spoil three ballots and then be given a provisional ballot to use. The St. Thomas-St. John District Board wanted to let a voter spoil two ballots before being offered assistance.

Williams said he was concerned that in offering assistance, a poll worker could be violating the voter's right to confidentiality.

A compromise was reached by the joint board that after a third attempt to cast a ballot is unsuccessful, assistance will be provided to the voter once he or she signs a written consent consistent with law.

Outstanding attorney's fees

The board voted to pay St. Croix attorney Scott McChain $54,514.88 for defending board members who were plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit brought by V.I. Action Group.

He represented the board in 2011, but has never been paid.

The matter had even gone through the V.I. Senate, where an appropriation was passed to pay the outstanding attorney fees, but Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoed the measure, stating that the board had the money to pay him and did not require an appropriation.

The motion passed by the board Wednesday directs Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes to identify the funding and make the payment.

Faxed ballots

The joint board approved a new policy regarding faxed ballots Wednesday.

Fawkes said the faxed ballots will not scan properly in the new voting machines, so the board needs to come up with a policy for counting the faxed votes.

Watlington said when a ballot is faxed, the voter must sign a waiver acknowledging that they are giving up their right to a secret ballot.

Board members voted to amend that policy, including language that will give consent to having two or more board members transcribe the faxed ballot onto a ballot that can be scanned. A quorum of the board must be present at the time, the same requirement the board has for counting ballots.

Special meeting

At the end of Wednesday's board meeting, Ross suggested that the board meet within the next 45 days to review policies specific to the upcoming election. The board approved the motion unanimously.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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