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Ballot Concerns Could Affect Constitutional Convention

June 3, 2007 — While an aggressive Constitutional Convention campaign has recently been preparing residents to vote for delegates in a special election scheduled for June 12, it is still unclear whether concerns raised over the past week by Board of Elections members will put a damper on the entire process.
For now, the issue has been solely limited to the design of the special election ballot and whether it was put together in accordance with provisions included in the V.I. Code.
Though board members in both districts have already decided to combat the problem by redesigning the ballot, it is yet to be seen whether the territory's voting machines can be reprogrammed to reflect the changes.
Since the design will be the same for both electronic and paper ballots, board members have also been concerned about whether the current ballot, if kept, will affect the absentee voting process and whether residents will understand exactly who they should be voting for.
Controversy over the ballot design was sparked about a week ago, when St. Thomas-St. John District Board members first questioned whether the ballot's design conformed to local election requirements, which allow residents to select 17 delegates to the Convention — 13 from their own district and another four from the territory-at-large.
The Code's provisions get a bit tricky when it comes down to the breakdown of the candidates, however, which has resulted in board members and Elections' officials having different interpretations of the law.
As written, enabling legislation states that in the St. Thomas-St. John district, two of the 13 candidates must be from the island of St. John. Furthermore, at-large candidates must be split equally between the two districts, with all residents voting for no more than two delegates from St. Thomas-St. John, and no more than two delegates from St. Croix.
However, at an emergency Joint Board of Elections meeting held over the weekend, board members said the current ballot design — which lumps at-large candidates from the two districts together in one column — will cause confusion at the polls, and could possibly result in a number of spoiled votes.
"Our interpretation is that the legislation's intent is to have residents vote for two candidates from each district," said St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections member Lorna A.C. Thomas. "But the electronic ballot is set up to simply cut off at four people instead of differentiating between the candidates from St. Thomas and the candidates from St. Croix. This means that the voter can cast a ballot for up to four candidates in one district alone — which is not what should be happening."
Board member Arturo Watlington Jr. added that the law's intent is not to have residents from both districts competing against each other for at-large seats.
"Candidates at-large are only competing against candidates in their own district, not with candidates from the entire territory," he said. "If I see an at-large ballot that comes in with four candidates from only one district, I find that to be a spoiled ballot, and I don't think the board should be promoting a procedure where people casting the ballot don't understand that two of their votes don't count."
Via telephone from St. Croix, P&P Communications owner Patrick Phillips — contracted to help with ballot design and machine programming, among other things — said that the "only solution" to the problem would be to "completely" redesign the ballots and reprogram voting machines to reflect the law. In addition to suggesting that the names of at-large candidates be segregated on the ballot in columns according to district, Phillips also said that the machines will be reprogrammed so that residents can only vote for two at-large candidates from St. Thomas-St. John and two from St. Croix.
Also speaking during the weekend meeting, Board of Elections legal counsel, Terrlyn Smock, further explained that redesigning the ballots would allow the system to preserve the "integrity" of the election and keep the Constitutional Convention process "aligned with the spirit" of the law.
However, Phillips added that the redesigning would not be finished before Wednesday, since all local ballots had already been printed. He said Elections board members would also have to put off certifying and testing the machines — which was supposed to have been conducted on Saturday — until later in the week.
A press release sent by the Elections System on Sunday evening said that testing of the voting machines will be held on Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Elections offices in both districts.
Board members in both districts unanimously voted for the redesigning of the ballots. However, it is unclear at this point whether the process will be complete in time for the June 12 election, and whether the Elections System currently has enough funds to foot the bill. The Source will continue to provide more information on the matter as more details become available.
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