Senators look for solution to paper-ballot controversy


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ST. THOMAS — Senators have been maneuvering to find a way to appease those voters who want to cast a paper ballot in the territory’s elections rather than use the electronic voting machines that are prescribed by law.

The movement started on local radio talk shows and gained traction prior to the Sept. 11 Primary Election when Adelbert Bryan sued the government. Bryan filed two lawsuits, one in U.S. District Court and one in V.I. Superior Court, and lost both of them. He voiced a number of complaints about the territory’s election system, but his chief complaint was that voters are not allowed to vote on Election Day with a paper ballot.

The only paper ballots legally available to voters are absentee ballots and provisional ballots, both of which can be used only under specific circumstances.

After Bryan lost his cases, the 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 those voters to use the machines instead; others 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. Terrence Nelson tried to waive the rules of the Legislature and special order a bill to the floor at last week’s V.I. Senate session to allow the use of paper ballots, but the attempt failed. Senate President Louis Hill first ruled the motion out of order because the document circulated was not drafted legislation but merely a letter asking for such legislation to be drafted.

Nelson tried to bring it to the floor the following day, but that also failed after the Legislature’s chief legal counsel, Yvonne Tharpes, said that in order to protect voters, election laws cannot be changed during the six-month period before an election.

Sen. Adlah Donastorg Jr. said he tried to submit a drafting request more than five months ago for a bill to allow paper ballots but was informed that another senator already had authorship. He said in a news release this week that legal counsel acted in error and told him that he does have ownership of the legislation.

Donastorg now is trying to get the eight signatures needed from other members of the Senate to call for a special session to consider the bill.

Earlier this week, Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the use of provisional ballots in the Sept. 11 Primary Election. She said the wide disparity between the number of provisionals collected in each district proves that the rules are not being enforced equally.

Friday, Sen. Craig Barshinger announced that he has drafted legislation to provide for early voting, which would be done with a paper ballot.

“It is practical, not expensive and seems to meet the needs of many of the concerned voters,” Barshinger said. “It’s not a perfect solution, but it does give everyone who wants to vote by paper a chance to vote early.”

He said any registered voter could choose to cast a ballot early without the restrictions that come with absentee voting.

To be in line with the Legislative counsel’s opinion, Barshinger said he will wait until Nov. 3 to introduce his legislation.

Barshinger said he, along with Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve and Hill, recently met with Elections employees and board members to talk about the issue.

“The main problem is a credibility gap between a group of voters and the elections system employees and board members,” Barshinger said. “Senators there urged election officials to close that gap through good communication and a constructive, helpful attitude.”

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

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