Board of Elections officials pled their case Friday for a lump sum appropriation of $1.8 million during Senate Finance Committee budget hearings in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted.
John Abramson, Jr., supervisor of elections for the Election Systems of the Virgin Islands, said the amount was the “only” level of funding that will meet the needs and projections of the election system in fiscal year 2013, which begins Oct. 1.
“Significant ground work must be in done in fiscal year 2013 in order to have a well educated and informed electorate in 2014,” Abramson said. “Fiscal year 2014 represents a pivotal election cycle for the Election System of the Virgin Islands. It will include selection of a new governor, implementation of new and complex local and federal election laws, new voting methods and voting equipment, and new election administrators.”
He said there was lots of education and planning needing completion in 2013. Along those lines, Abramson said the Nov. 6 general election takes place in the new fiscal year 2013 but that his agency would need $353,000 before the fiscal year starts in order to “conduct the necessary planning and preparation” for the 2012 general November election.
Finance Committee Chairman Carlton “Ital” Dowe agreed with Abramson’s request for monies early.
“If we gave you that 353 (thousand) in October to hold the general election, you’re already behind the bar,” Dowe said. “I think what you’re saying makes sense…This is bigger than us.”
Dowe cautioned, though, that any funds received in fiscal year 2012 would not be available in 2013.
Abramson also said that for the 2012 election cycle, electronic election management setup and e-poll books would be implemented and utilized. He noted that registered voters in the territory totaled 48,743: 24,911 in St. Thomas-St. John and 23,832 in St. Croix. Despite those figures, though, when asked by Sen. Celestino White about historical voter turnout, the numbers dropped significantly.
According to Abramson, in gubernatorial elections turnout totaled anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 while in non-gubernatorial elections, like the one in 2012, the turnout dropped even more to anywhere between 4,500 to 6,000. He also said new voting tabulation units being requested in the budget at a cost of $540,390 would actually not be in place until the 2014 election as the contract with the vendor would probably not be completed until the end of 2012.
When asked by Sen. Nereida “Nellie” O’Reilly whether these machines would give voters ”a greater sense of confidence that their vote was being registered,” Abramson replied, “That is the anticipation.”
Also presenting testimony was Rupert Ross Jr., chairman of the Virgin Islands Joint Board of Elections and Chairman of the St. Croix District Board of Elections. He said he was in “full support” of Abramson’s request for additional funds for the upcoming primary and general election. He also spoke of the need for independent counsel for the election system as a result of an ongoing court case brought on by the recall initiative brought by a group of residents.
In appropriating $65,000 for the St. Croix District Board of Elections, the action “will make the election system more independent of the executive and legislative branches of government, which should be a desirable outcome,” he said. Ross concluded adding there would be an interactive public forum to be held at the St. Croix Educational Complex auditorium at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 22.
“It is our hope that we will address concerns and answer questions related to the upcoming primary and general elections,” he said.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes said education was paramount to the future success of the territory.
“The fact is we need to really do better in terms of educating our younger generation,” Sanes said. “Not just in election procedure and reform, but in every aspect of our life. To me it’s just so important…Thirty years ago we had a civics class when Mr. Ross was my principal. I still remember the lessons to this day. Today they are no longer in existence. Something’s bad.”