Senators grill Elections chief on paper ballot issue


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ST. THOMAS — V.I. senators hashed out the controversial paper ballot issue with Supervisor of Elections John Abramson Jr. on Wednesday at a Financial Services, Infrastructure and Consumer Affairs Committee hearing.

St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections chairwoman Lorna Thomas and St. Croix Board of Elections chairman Raymond Williams were invited to the hearing Wednesday, but they sent correspondence authorizing Abramson to speak on their behalf.

Five members of the public also were given the opportunity to testify Wednesday.

The paper ballot issue started on the territory’s radio talk-shows months ago, when a handful of people voiced their mistrust of the electronic voting machines and the Elections System.

Abramson said the joint Board of Elections decided in July to allow voters uncomfortable with the voting machines to use provisional ballots on Election Day.

Adelbert Bryan sued the government over the matter, filing one lawsuit in U.S. District Court and one in V.I. Superior Court. He voiced a number of complaints about the territory’s election system, including that the board was using the provisional ballots in violation of the federal Help America Vote Act. He asked the court to allow the use of paper ballots at the Primary and General Elections.

Bryan lost both cases, but both judges’ orders stated that Elections must follow the law prescribing the use of provisional ballots to the letter.

After Bryan lost his cases, the Sept. 11 Primary Election proceeded, but not without protest. Voters who backed Bryan’s mistrust of the voting machines showed up at polls demanding provisional ballots — despite the fact that they had no legal ground to use them to vote.

Some poll judges were able to convince voters to use the machines instead; other voters refused to cast a ballot at all and walked out. Some poll judges, particularly in the St. Thomas-St. John District, used their discretion and allowed the use of provisional ballots even if the voter may not have been entitled to it. This resulted in 107 provisional ballots collected in the St. Thomas-St. John District and only three collected on St. Croix.

Sen. Neville James asked Abramson to explain what happened in one district that did not happen in the other.

“Nothing happened in one district that didn’t happen in the other,” Abramson said.

The big picture is disenfranchisement, he said, and the primary goal of all election officials is to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised and are allowed to cast their ballots according to their constitutional rights.

The conduct of elections on Election Day is the sole responsibility of the poll workers hired by the district boards of elections, Abramson said. He said the supervisor and his staff prepare for the election, and the boards set policies, but the implementation and enforcement of election laws on Election Day is done by the elections officials hired.

“The discretion to make decisions is left with the election official, keeping in mind the bigger picture of disenfranchisement,” Abramson said.

Abramson said the biggest problem Sept. 11 was that electors were making requests — for provisional ballots — that could not be accommodated because of the court ruling and the limited legal authority prescribed by Congress.

“The Election System does not make law. I am bound by duty, by contract, to enforce the laws as they exist,” he said. “The law is the law; if you don’t like it, get it changed.”

James did not invite the public to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, but a motion was passed to allow the public to testify, and five of the two dozen people gathered in the gallery spoke to senators.

Two women — one from St. Croix and one from St. Thomas — told very different stories about trying to vote with a provisional ballot in the Primary Election.

Harriet Mercer said she walked into her polling site at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School and asked to vote with a provisional ballot. She was given one with no questions asked, she said.

On St. Croix, Julein Hansen was denied the use of a provisional ballot. She said she does not trust the electronic voting machines, so she left the poll without casting a ballot at all.

Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly asked her how that made her feel.

“Kind of cheated, my sister fight and die for me to have that right to vote,” she said. “I prefer paper; I should not be denied the right and forced to use the machines if I don’t choose to.”

Senators asked Abramson whether there was another remedy for those who did not want to use the electronic voting machines. He said the other methods — walk-in or mail-in absentee ballots — also are limited by law. To qualify to vote with an absentee ballot, an elector must meet one of nine criteria.

He was asked by several senators to allow the use of walk-in absentee ballots without proof that the voter meets the criteria — which would essentially allow those who wanted to use paper ballots to do so. 

One of the allowances for using an absentee ballot is religious reasons prevent voting on Election Day.

Sen. Craig Barshinger made the argument that the passion and fervor shown by the paper ballot advocates is akin to religious belief.

“For some of these folks it rises to a religious conviction,” he said.

Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone agreed with the walk-in absentee idea. 

“I think the quickest way is to use the walk-in absentee ballot process,” he said.

“Don’t harass them when they come in to vote, just let them do it. Make it possible for them to participate in the election process,” Malone said.

Abramson said he does not encourage voters to use a process they are not legally entitled to. He also pointed out that every person voting absentee must sign an affidavit stating that they meet one of the nine statutory requirements.

Later in the day, Abramson said he had instructed his staff to let any registered voter cast a walk-in absentee ballot without presenting proof that they would not be available to cast a ballot on Election Day. They would be required only to sign the affidavit.

“The onus is on them,” Abramson said.

The topic was added only recently to the committee’s agenda, but senators took the entire day to explore the matter and lost a quorum before they could consider the three bills that also were on the agenda. James, the committee chairman, said he would schedule another meeting to deal with the three measures.

— Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 774-8772 ext. 311 or e-mail alewin@dailynews.vi.

 

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