Feds, V.I. sign consent decree to fix absentee ballot procedures
Published: September 5, 2012
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The U.S. Department of Justice and the V.I. government have signed a consent decree aimed at ensuring the territory allows its absent military members and voters living overseas to fully participate in the upcoming primary and general elections.
The consent decree, filed in federal court on St. Thomas on Friday, settles a lawsuit that the U.S. Department of Justice filed the same day, alleging that the territory has violated the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, as amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, by failing to transmit absentee ballots to overseas and military voters in a timely manner.
The territory already has signed the consent decree, thereby agreeing to its mandates.
However, a judge must sign off on the agreement for it to be valid. A hearing on the matter is scheduled in U.S. District Court before Judge Curtis Gomez this morning.
V.I. Elections Supervisor John Abramson Jr. said that he has been recommending for more than two years that local lawmakers change V.I. Code to comply with the federal law.
"We've been trying to tell them that they should fix this issue," Abramson said. "They hadn't fixed it, and this is where we end up. We get sued by the feds."
The lawsuit named the V.I. government, the Joint Boards of Elections, the district boards of Elections and Abramson, in his official capacity.
Abramson said that once the consent decree is accepted and signed by a judge, he will ask the boards of Election to forward copies of the agreement to the Legislature so that senators will understand the additional work they need to do.
Under federal law, the territory is required to send absentee ballots to those qualified voters who are U.S. citizens overseas or military members at least 45 days before an election that includes a federal vote, such as the one for V.I. Delegate to Congress.
For Saturday's primary, that means the deadline for transmission of absentee ballots to voters who requested them should have been July 25, according to court documents.
However, under V.I. Code, the qualifying period for candidates in the Sept. 8 federal primary did not end until Aug. 14 - almost three weeks after the July 25 deadline.
Therefore, the territory failed to meet the deadline, the federal government contends.
"The federal act says the ballot needed to go 45 days in advance of the election, which was July 25," Abramson said. "On July 25, I did not even know who was running for office."
Abramson said that the deadline for filing nominating petitions is set out in V.I. Code - and it is not within the purview of his office to correct the deadlines so that they comply with federal law.
The Legislature must do that, he said.
For this year, though, the consent decree spells out what Elections must do to remedy the situation, starting with a mandate that all absentee ballots for the Sept. 8 primary had to be transmitted to voters by last Friday.
Elections had to provide the voters with the option of receiving their ballot by mail, email or fax. Mailed ballots had to be sent by express mail.
For the 2012 elections, the consent decree also would require the territory to:
- Extend the deadline for receipt of ballots from absentee voters for an additional seven days for the primary election, from Sept. 18 as provided for in territorial law, to Sept. 25.
- Transmit absentee ballots for the federal general election no later than Oct. 2. For those voters who requested the ballot by mail, the territory must send it using an express delivery service. The territory must also offer absentee voters the option of receiving the ballot by email or fax.
- Offer absentee voters in this year's primary and general federal elections the option of returning their ballot by email, fax or express delivery at no cost to them.
- Establish a procedure so that qualifying voters who received two absentee ballots will have their ballot validly counted.
- Certify the Sept. 8 federal primary results no later than Sept. 28 and certify the Nov. 6 federal general election no later than Nov. 21.
- Train Election officials about the requirements of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
- Report to the United States the number of absentee ballots received and counted for the primary and general federal elections.
Abramson said Tuesday that to comply with the consent decree, Elections sent out 10 ballots on Friday.
Six of those ballots were sent by email, while four of them were sent by Express Mail at a cost of approximately $110, he said.
He anticipates, though, that the costs incurred by the Elections System to comply with the consent decree could be significantly higher for the general election, when voters with no party affiliation also will be voting.
"I think that there we're looking at some significant costs," he said. "I don't think I will only have 10, because more people participate."
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.