The delays in counting votes and the trouble handling party symbol votes that plagued the 2014 election will repeat themselves in 2016, unless the Legislature acts or a lawsuit is filed and won in the next several months, elections officials told the V.I. Legislature this week.
The Legislature met as the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday evening to hear from elections officials.
The territory purchased new vote tabulating machines after Adelbert Bryan, who was at the time the St. Croix Elections Board chairman, waged a campaign to get rid of the territory’s previous machines, alleging, without evidence, possible widespread conspiracies to rig the territory’s elections and making numerous dubious claims about the old machines. (See: "Public to Test Voting Machines This Weekend" in Related Links below)
In a test run shortly before the general election in 2014, the brand new ES&S ballot tabulators counted votes in a surprising way, due to the unique V.I. electoral system where senators vie to be the top seven vote-getters in their district.
If, for example, a voter selected the Democratic Party symbol and then selected an independent senatorial candidate, the independent senator’s vote would be recorded, but the votes for all seven of the Democratic senators would be voided. And the machine does not reject the ballot, but accepts it as though nothing is wrong.
To avoid this conflict with the territory’s party symbol voting law, the Joint Board of Elections instituted procedures to have elections officials separate out party-symbol votes and resolve cross-party voting conflicts by hand. The V.I. Supreme Court issued an opinion acknowledging the machine counts votes improperly, but saying voters must be allowed to run ballots through the tabulators to check for over- or under-voting.
At present, the tabulators will still count the votes wrong and the territory will still have to count the ballots all by hand, unless the V.I. Legislature either changes the party symbol voting law or immediately finds a half a million dollars to write new programming for the machine, elections officials testified.
Senate President Neville James asked Bryan if he would come into the well to testify.
"It depends," Bryan said.
"It’s a yes or no question. I’ll take that as a no," James said.
Bryan did not testify.
Current St. Croix Board of Elections Chairwoman Liliana Belardo de O’Neal recounted the events of the election and the problems with the way the tabulators counted party symbol votes.
She said the St. Croix board felt the only options were to either change the software or change the symbol voting law. The territory cannot change voting laws more than six months before the next election, to be held in August of 2016, which only gives about eight months, she said. And changing the software will cost a lot of money during a time of budget crisis, "and may not be ready for the 2016 election," Belardo de O’Neal said.
Several senators pressed Belardo de O’Neal and other elections board members and officials on whether the purchase contract for the machines protected the territory and why the makers were not paying for the new software.
"The documents should be at Property and Procurement. Did anyone go back and see what was requested of ES&S?" asked Sen. Clifford Graham.
Several officials said those documents were not at Elections and they had not done so.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes asked, "Do we have sufficient grounds to take action against the vendor?"
St. Croix Elections Board member Lisa Harris-Moorhead said, "I have to qualify that answer. I believe yes, but I have asked for information to supplement what we have so that I know for sure."
Board members said they supported looking into action against the vendor but that the problem with symbol voting would still need to be addressed, pending that action’s outcome, and time is still running out.
No votes were taken at the information gathering oversight hearing.