A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
The controversy over Sen. Alicia Hansen’s right to run for office – recently settled in her favor by the Office of the Elections – raises another question: Just how does that office keep track of eligible voters?
Very closely, according to Elections Supervisor John Abramson.
A person convicted of a felony loses the privilege of ever running for public office (unless he or she is pardoned.) The person also loses the right to cast a ballot, but that right is restored once full restitution is made.
All three courts operating in the territory – Superior Court, District Court and Supreme Court – send Elections regular reports notifying the office of all felony convictions, Abramson said. Once those convicted are sentenced, the courts provide that information also.
The Elections Office checks the names against its list of registered voters. If a felon is registered to vote, Abramson said a red dot is put on his information card and that a person thus flagged may not vote until he has served his full sentence, including parole or probation, and made any restitution required by the court.
“We track about 450 felons every year,” Abramson said.
If the felon is not a registered voter at the time of conviction, his name is put on another list, and he is ineligible to register until he has completed his sentence. Abramson said that list generally runs about 200 names long.
The normal procedure is for the respective court to send Elections a “release of sentence” notice once a felon has completed his time, and for Elections to follow up with a reinstatement letter to the person.
Abramson said losing voting privileges is strongly felt among the convicted, and they are proactive in getting that privilege reinstated. But he noted there also is another, less civic-minded and more practical aspect of the right for some people coming out of prison: They want a voter’s card because they need a government issued I.D.
In a few cases, people lose their right to vote because they are deemed mentally incompetent; Abramson said the Health Department alerts Elections in such instances.
The most fundamental determiners of voter eligibility, of course, are age, citizenship and residency.
A person has to show proof of citizenship before registering to vote, and that’s the primary test. But besides that, the court and the Immigration Service help Elections track citizenship status by keeping the office abreast of who has been naturalized, as well as of those determined to be illegal immigrants.
Residency is another issue. Elections officials may eliminate persons from the V.I. rolls who vote or attempt to vote in another jurisdiction in the same time period when they are claiming to be V.I. voters.
It’s relatively easy to monitor anyone who registers in another U.S. jurisdiction. Unless he simply lies on his registration form – committing fraud – he will need to list his last voting district. And Elections offices throughout the U.S. automatically notify one another when a voter re-registers in a new district.
There is less control over dual voting by people who live in the U.S. Virgin Islands but also claim citizenship in another country, most typically another Caribbean island where they were born and from which they emigrated to the territory.
“Dual citizenship is recognized in probably all of the countries south of us,” Abramson said. There is no mechanism for sharing voting information between them and the Virgin Islands. Instead, he said, “the onus is on the elector, not the system” to keep the Elections Office current on the person’s voting status.
In registering to vote in the territory, a person relinquishes his right to vote in any other country, and he signs the registration under oath. So while it may be easy to get away with voting in two places, the consequences if the person is caught could be serious. “It’s perjury. It’s fraud. It’s wrongful registration,” Abramson said, and it’s cause for the attorney general to prosecute.
In reality, however, Abramson said such dual voting is rare.
Finally, in an apparent attempt to keep current in a community whose population contains a significant transient section, V.I. law provides for culling voter rolls. If a voter fails to vote in two consecutive general elections, his registration is cancelled and he must re-register in order to restore his eligibility. Elections staff check the rolls for such changes before each election.
“People think we just work every two years,” Abramson said. But there’s a lot going on all the time.