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Activists Begin Fight for Election Reform

Oct. 20, 2004 – Ann Arnold, Northside Civic Organization president, and Jason Budsan, the organization's issues chairman, visited the Legislature Tuesday laden with petitions addressing election reform and reform of the Government Employees Retirement System.
Sen. Louis Hill had drafted the GERS legislation, but Budsan said he still wanted the other senators to sign on saying they will support it.
The NCO in the last 18 months has successfully lobbied for the reopening of the Dorthea Fire Station and the opening of the neighborhood's tot lot. Bolstered by its past success, the group is taking up the two new initiatives.
However, Budsan is aware it's likely a bumpy road ahead.
He said Wednesday, "What we want is for the senators to take this seriously. We want the 26th Legislature to sit down and talk about this on the Senate floor. We want them to pay attention to it."
As for the GERS legislation, Budsan spoke to Hill about his bill. Hill's legislation, which he has been working on for more than a year, is still with the Senate legal counsel, but Hill hopes to have it heard before committee this year. The legislation has the support of the GERS and the Advocates for Preservation of the Retirement System.
Budsan is also eager for the 26th Legislature to act on either numbered seating or districting as a means of holding senators accountable to their constituents.
The two different election methods require several steps to implement.
Numbered seating would include seven seats each in the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John districts and one at-large seat to be filled by a St. John resident. Incumbents would be assigned a numbered seat and challengers would decide whom they would run against. The proposed system, proponents say, would instill debate and accountability to a political process that now resembles a popularity contest.
The incumbents would be forced to run on what they have done for the past two years in office.
Districting, used widely in the Caribbean and on the U.S. mainland, can be much more difficult.
Under a district system, each island would be divided into seven districts. A candidate would run from a specific district, opposed only by candidates from the same district.
One senator would be elected from each district, and only the persons residing in a given district would be eligible to vote for that district's representative.
The system requires extensive mapping. Though districting maps do exist, a representative in the St. Croix Office of Elections said Wednesday, in the event of a districting initiative, a new survey would be needed.
In the past, election reform has been stopped dead in its tracks as soon as senators have gotten their hands on it. The infamous referendum of 2000 went down in flames as soon as it reached the Senate floor. Out of more than 33,000 voters, some 15,000 expressed the desire for a nine-member Senate in a 2000 referendum. However, the Legislature voted in July 2001 against a bill to implement the change
As far as referendums go, John Abramson, Elections Supervisor , said in Sen. Lorraine Berry's 2001 Virgin Islanders for Democratic Action forum, "there is no such animal in the V.I." He said, "A referendum is a legislative activity. Only the Legislature can determine a referendum, and they can set the parameters for it. To get it on the ballot, you have to use an initiative with 50 percent of registered voters' approval, and 50 percent voting."
Nonetheless, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce took the Legislature to court over the issue in 2001 But Chamber President Carmelo Rivera, along with attorney Douglas Brady and former Sen. Holland Redfield, a member of the organization’s government affairs committee, decided to withdraw the lawsuit which would have forced the Legislature to comply with the 2000 referendum and reduce the number of senators from 15 to 11 or nine.
Brady said he was confident the Chamber would have prevailed in the Senate reduction lawsuit, but it would have taken years to run its course. The initiative process is a more expedient way at reform, he said. A referendum is not the same as an initiative; an initiative can be put on the ballot – a referendum cannot.
Brady said, "The suit wouldn’t have changed the process. It was simply a change in the number of senators. They still would have been elected at-large," he said, adding that would have concentrated power in "the hands of a few senators" and would have only "exacerbated" issues. The Chamber decided to pursue a numbered seat initiative instead. (See "Chamber Dumps Senate Suit, Eyes Reform").
The initiative almost succeeded in 2002. A territory-wide group – Citizens for Legislative Reform – was formed to get it on the ballot, but it came up short of the needed votes in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
The initiative officially came into existence after 1 percent of the registered voters in both districts signed a petition earlier this year asking for numbered seats. If the sponsors could collect verifiable signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in each district, the proposal would have gone to the Legislature for a vote. However, without the votes, the initiative never got that far.
As far as actual election reform, Abramson said at Berry's forum, "There are more than 20,000 methods of selecting senators, or hybrids of these. It's a massive undertaking. I don't think people understand how technical this is."
Budsan said Wednesday that the NCO would be sending petitions to all the St. Thomas-St. John senatorial aspirants, requesting they return them by the end of the month. The petitions handed out at the incumbents' offices Tuesday, ask the senators to return them to the organization by Friday.
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