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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 14, 2024


It is unfortunate that we are placing the cart before the horse when we seek to change our election method from one that is defined as an at-large plurality method to numbered seats without the benefit of a thorough examination of election methods generally to determine which method offers the greatest promise to the Virgin Islands over the long haul.
While numbered seats exist in a small number of jurisdictions, it is not among the election methods prominently listed in the literature on election reform. Is it that we are so different from other jurisdictions that we must rush to settle for an election method that does not reflect the developing trends in the election reform movement?
A review of the title of the initiative question that will appear on the ballot once enough signatures are obtained leaves me with the opinion that voting for numbered seats will be based on plurality and not majority voting results. (See "Initiative begun on numbered Senate seats".) That is to say, that the candidate with the most votes for a particular numbered seat will be elected, even though the number of votes that he or she receives may be no more than 25 percent of all votes cast for that particular seat.
Are we concerned about this likely outcome when numbered seats are implemented with no requirement that a successful candidate receive a majority rather than a plurality of votes to win a numbered seat? Clearly, this is an example of winner-take-all wherein a candidate with a minority percentage of the vote for a seat takes all of the votes and is elected even though he does not represent 75 percent of the persons who voted for that seat.
This can become a reality with more than one seat in our election districts. Conceivably, many senators can be elected with a minority of all votes cast for their respective seats because the majority of votes cast are spread out among the other candidates seeking the same seat. Under plurality voting, the greater the number of candidates seeking the same seat, the lower the percentage of the votes required to win that seat. Is this the outcome that we seek? Or, is it the unintended consequence of tinkering with a complex system?
If we decide that we wish to require the successful candidate for a seat to receive a majority of votes cast for that seat, we must then be prepared to engage in run-off elections as we do in our gubernatorial elections. While run-off elections by seat is the way that it is done in Austin, Texas, to ensure majority representation, are we prepared for run-off elections by seat number in the Virgin Islands?
Of the two options — plurality, where the successful candidate receives the most votes but probably not a majority of the votes cast for that seat, or majority, where the successful candidate must receive a majority of the votes cast for the seat — which option do we prefer?
Election reform is serious and oftentimes technical business, and it should be approached with caution and an appreciable amount of research of the many options that exist in the literature. This approach should be coupled with full and open discussions of the options in public settings designed for this purpose that precede a vote in the Legislature.
In 1996, when the 22nd Legislature convened, it was recommended that a Study and Advisory Commission on Election Reform be created to advise the lawmakers on election methods before any specific method was enacted into law. A suggested timetable for the work of the commission also was included.
There is little doubt that our current at-large, plurality voting election method is problematic and is not working well for us. Similarly, there is little doubt that reform is called for. However, it should come only after the options that are known to election reformers have been examined and before the initiative is taken to a vote.
The University of the Virgin Islands recently completed an analysis of the administrative structure of the Department of Education. If the idea of a Study and Advisory Commission on Election Reform is not an attractive one, perhaps the research capabilities of the university should be tapped again to investigate election method options to assist the legislature in adopting a method that addresses our needs while bringing the territory into the mainstream of progressive election reform. We deserve no less.

Editor's note: St. Thomas resident Gaylord A. Sprauve is a retired V.I. government administrator. He notes that he learned of the Legislature's late-night action on May 23-24 to make all Senate seats at-large territorywide after having prepared this article for submission and says it's his hope "that it is still relevant."
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