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HomeNewsArchivesPARTIES DISPUTING INTENT OF NEW PRIMARIES LAW

PARTIES DISPUTING INTENT OF NEW PRIMARIES LAW

March 11, 2002 – Leaders of the territory's three political parties say they are not sure what role they will have in carrying out primary elections later this year. But the Democratic and Republican parties are challenging the Joint Boards of Elections' stand that under a recent amendment to the territory's election law, parties that hold primaries also must foot the bill for them.
At a Republican Party meeting over the weekend, Julio Brady, a former lieutenant governor and former attorney general, said he was going to meet Monday with Attorney General Iver Stridiron to discuss the legality of the newly revised statute. According to a news report on WVWI Radio, the Republicans said they cannot find a legal interpretation that the parties are to be responsible for their own primaries.
Democrats, who represent by far the largest bloc of voters in the Virgin Islands and send the greatest number of voters to the polls in primary elections, came to the same conclusion earlier. The party's leaders have also so far been the most vocal about their wish to keep the status quo, with the Board of Elections remaining in charge of the primaries.
Arturo Watlington, chair of the V.I. Democratic Party, said that in order to make sure the system remains fair and open, things should stay the way they are. At a meeting on St. Croix recently, "The territorial committee decided we would select the public primary process," he said.
But Watlington said the party objects to the notion of picking up the bill. "There's nothing in the law that talks about who shall pay," he said. "As I read Act 6488, it gives the parties the option to select the process for electing officers and the process. The provision does not suggest that the parties have to pay for the process that is selected."
Sen. Celestino White, who introduced the legislation last fall, special-ordered it to the Senate floor in late December for a vote without benefit of committee hearings, and orchestrated its passage into law a month later via an override of the governor's veto, makes no bones about the fact that he is against the government covering the costs for political parties to select their candidates.
"There's no reason the people should have to pay for their primary elections," he said recently. "They could hold a convention and figure it out for themselves." (See related story, "Loud protests to quiet changes in voting law".)
Until now, primary elections have been conducted by and funded by the V.I. government. But a recently enacted change to the V.I. Code would appear to relieve the government of responsibility for doing so, making the political parties responsible for holding their own primaries or otherwise determining who their standard-bearers will be in the general elections.
The section of the V.I. Code as recently amended reads in whole: "Party primary elections shall be held in the Virgin Islands on the second Saturday of September for the purpose of choosing candidates for nomination to public offices to be voted for at the ensuing general election. The Board of Elections will be responsible for certifying the process to be used by any political party to select party officers and candidates for public office."
What is new about the section is the last five words — "and candidates for public office."
The previous wordage represented a revision in the form of a substitution that was enacted two years earlier to relieve the government of responsibility for conducting and paying for primary elections to choose party officers. That legislation was in effect for the last primary elections, but the parties pleaded that they did not have sufficient time to organize their own means of electing officers, and so the Boards of Elections included the candidates for party office as usual on the primary ballot, along with the candidates for public office.
Since the first of the year, the Joint Boards of Elections members have been reviewing options; Elections Supervisor John Abramson says they are now ready to talk about procedural aspects of implementing the new law. Among the matters to be resolved, he said, are how candidates will be selected; who will be recognized as an eligible voter; who will pay for any polling space, equipment, poll workers and transportation needs; and how votes will be counted and by whom.
Until now it's been up to the Joint Boards of Elections to make these decisions and act on them. But even two years ago, after the law was amended to relieve the government of responsibility for elections to choose party officers, V.I. Election System officials were saying the process had become too expensive to be justified by the typical small voter turnout for primary elections.
Abramson said his intention was to begin a dialogue with party leaders at the beginning of March about implementing the mandated change. But the state chairs of the Democratic Party, Republican Party and Independent Citizens Movement said they were still in the process of gathering their members to talk things over.
Holland Redfield, national committeeman for the V.I. Republican Party, said recently that the Republicans had scheduled the past weekend's meeting "to determine how we are going to do this." He added, "Hopefully, we can hash this out."
ICM members have yet to formulate their stance. In mid-February, party chair Raymond "Usie" Richards said he understands why the parties are being asked to do more. ICM already has a process for picking party officers built into its constitution, he said.
Richards also is a member of the St. Croix Board of Elections and a proponent of the changes now under way. Citing the financial burden borne by the government, he pointed out that some of that expense has gone into the process of parties picking officers who serve their political organizations but not the public.
Both Board of Elections members and the territorial party leaders say they are worried about coming up with a system that is fair and won't disenfranchise those party members who want to have a say in choosing their parties' candidates.
Watlington said recently that he would respond to a certified letter received from Abramson a few weeks ago, and that his letter would outline the party's position on the conduct of primary elections.
Abramson said Friday that he sent certified letters to the party heads last month asking them to respond by March 2. He said the party officials were asked "to send to the board in writing the methods and mechanisms to use, whether it be an election, convention or election by mail."
To date, he said, "I've received one correspondence" — from the Democrats. He declined to disclose the contents of Watlington's letter but said he would present the information at the Joint Boards of Elections meeting set for Friday.
Replies from the Republicans and the Independent Citizens Movement will likewise be presented to the board if they are received, he said. If he hasn't heard from them by Friday, he said, he will ask the board to extend the deadline or take some other action.
Abramson has mentioned the possibility of the Joint Boards of Elections conducting party primaries as in the past, but on a contract basis with the parties to cover the costs. Abramson noted that this is not spelled out as an option in the revised primary law. It was something that came up during a board discussion, he said. If the political parties were amenable, he said, they would sign a professional services contract which would spell out costs and conditions.

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