With unanimous votes Wednesday, the St. Croix Board of Elections presented a united front before testifying Thursday before the 31st Legislature about its role in the upcoming primary election and its need for legal counsel after the V.I. attorney general allegedly refused to offer his opinion on the matter.
The board voted after an executive session to stand behind Chairwoman Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal, literally and figuratively, when she appears before the Senate on Thursday to discuss, among other matters, who bears the responsibility of funding primary elections.
The St. Croix board has interpreted the V.I. Code, Title 18, Sec. 232, as a mandate for political parties to finance primary elections and for the Elections board to oversee the process and certify the voting.
Since 1997, the St. Croix Elections Board has recommended political parties be responsible for primary elections, according to their interpretation of the V.I. Code.
In 2012, the Senate discussed the issue and voted to give the political parties until January 2014 to get organized. After that, there was neither further discussion nor action taken on the matter by the Legislature.
In 2014, first the St. Thomas/St. John Board, then St. Croix’s board requested funds for primaries from the government’s Miscellaneous Fund and both boards paid for and certified the primary election.
The subject came up again last year, and the St. Croix Board has solidified its position:
“We won’t hold a primary unless the law is changed,” Belardo de O’Neal said.
Along with Belardo de O’Neal, Raymond Williams, Glenn Webster, Lisa Harris-Moorhead and Roland Moolenaar voted in favor of the motions.
Williams acknowledged there is no way to force the parties to take over, but said, “If they don’t submit, we don’t sanction any activity they would do.”
Some of the St. Croix Board members plan to attend Thursday’s Legislative hearing. They complained that their counterparts – the St. Thomas Elections Board – plan to boycott the session.
“In absentia, he won’t have any powers of persuasion,” Belardo de O’Neal said, referring to Arturo Watlington Jr., the St. Thomas Board chairman.
The second motion approved by the St. Croix Board directed Belardo de O’Neal to write a letter to Attorney General Claude Wallace and protest his refusal to serve as their counsel with an opinion on the primary issue.
According to the board, the V.I. Code identifies the attorney general as the representative for the Elections Board unless there is funding for independent counsel.
In other matters, the board received updates on the compliance and readiness of polling sites from the Department of Education and the V.I. ADA coordinator. Both agreed to visit polling places with Elections members in April.
Jamilla Russell, the territorial ADA coordinator, elaborated on a report from her office about ADA compliance at the Elections System office. The bathroom is still not compliant, she said, and an incorrect sign marks parking for disabled drivers.
Additionally there is no written policy or training for dealing with individuals with disabilities, Russell said. Her office will provide the necessary training free of charge.
Williams and others said they would welcome training and other assistance.
The Education Department is responsible for some of the issues at the schools and Elections Board is responsible for others during Election Day, according to Russell. She added that, there are temporary measures available such as portable ramps.
“Some of the schools are not (ADA) compliant and we’re working with Education on the issues,” Russell said.
Vaughn Hewitt, assistant superintendent of St. Croix schools, said repairs, ADA signs and wheelchair accessible restrooms will be ready after the necessary funding is received next month. He said wheelchair-accessible bathrooms in three schools – Eulalie Rivera, Ricardo Richards and Alexander Henderson Elementary Schools – will be open on Election Day, unlike in previous elections.
“We need until April 2 to do whatever work we need to do because of the timing of the funds coming through,” Hewitt said.
The board also voted to ask the Department of Property and Procurement to negotiate for a new office location in Estate La Reine. They asked Russell to give her opinion on any ADA compliance issues, especially in the parking lot.
Early voting sites approved by the board were Sunshine Mall, the University of the Virgin Islands and the Florence Williams Library in Christiansted.
During her report, Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes said the budget is “on track.” Williams requested more detailed reporting of expenses in the future.