Elections officials could not tell lawmakers how much it will cost to run November’s general election, but they were unanimous in saying it will cost a lot more than the recently conducted primary election, probably two to three times as much.
Officials from the V.I. Elections System testified Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee about the proposed Elections budget for Fiscal Year 2015. The hearing took place Tuesday morning at the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted.
The committee was considering a proposed FY15 budget of $1.4 million for Elections, but that number does not include the cost of the November general election.
Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes, St. Croix District Board Chairman Adelbert Bryan and St. Thomas/St. John District Chairman Arturo Watlington explained that the general election is much wider in scope than the primary. The difference goes beyond the fact that the primary only involved contested races in a single party, they said.
"It is impossible to conduct the general election for the same amount of money as the primary," Watlington said. "You’re doubling the information. You’re tripling the amount of polling stations and poll workers.”
Those expenditures include things people might expect – printing paper ballots, paying poll workers and buying office supplies – but it also includes things people might not have considered – catering, for instance. Poll workers and election staff are on duty from early in the morning to late at night, Watlington pointed out.
"We have to serve three sets of meals. They cannot leave until after 7 at night when we close the polls," he said.
Bryan added that far more people are likely to vote in the general election than did in the primary.
"You have to consider … you’re doubling or tripling the cost of the primary for the general," he said.
The final costs for the primary have not been tabulated, Watlington said. When that’s completed, the St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections will be able to project the likely cost of November’s general election. Watlington guessed it would be more than $200,000 for his district. Bryan did not offer a guess for the cost in the St. Croix district.
Sen. Clifford Graham, chairman of the Finance Committee, urged Elections officials to be quick in getting those estimates into the budget.
"We need some idea from you," Graham said. "Once the budget is passed, you’ll have to ask for a supplemental budget," and it’s hard to predict when a meeting of the full Senate might be scheduled, he added.
He urged Elections officials to get their estimate in "probably before the end of next week."
The current proposal for the Elections budget is a total of $1.4 million: $78,000 for the St. Thomas/St. John Board of Elections, about the same for the St. Croix Board of Elections, and $1.2 million for the Office of the Supervisor of Elections. The total is an increase of $5,724 over the current fiscal year’s Elections budget.
During the rounds of questioning, several senators asked about the decision to hold the Aug. 2 primary as scheduled when a warning had been issued for the approaching Tropical Storm Bertha.
All three officials were adamant that there was no law allowing Elections to cancel a scheduled election on its own authority.
"An emergency has to be declared by the central government” and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Authority, Bryan said, "not the Board of Elections.”
He said, “The board of elections had no real authority to shut down the elections absent a declaration of emergency."
Fawkes pointed out to senators that the budget proposal includes an additional $425,000 for two projects to expand the system’s office space – $25,000 to lease space on St. John and $400,000 to build out the space the St. Croix staff uses at Sunny Isles.
She also said the Elections staff hasn’t received a step increase since 2009, and plans to do so in FY15, "even if this means sacrificing in other budgeted areas."
Fawkes also talked about the need for election reform, updating the current election code and using new technology to make it easier for more people to register and maintain their registration.
There are 48,368 registered voters in the territory: 22,866 on St. Thomas; 1,752 on St. John; and 23,750 on St. Croix.
The new registration period before the November general election has opened and Elections is planning several voter registration drives, she said.
"By Oct. 3, the last day to register before the general election, there will be a vast increase in the number of registered voters," Fawkes said.