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Senate May Eliminate Party Symbol Voting

The V.I. Legislature may eliminate party-slate voting by party symbol if a bill approved in committee is enacted into law. The measure [Bill 31-0270] is one of several election reform bills sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens considered in the Rules and Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The proposed legislation would change V.I. law to allow placing the party symbol next to candidate names on the ballot, to help them identify their party status, while eliminating the ability to vote for every candidate of a particular party by just hitting the party symbol, Gittens said, introducing the measure.

Lisa Richards, vice state chairwoman of the V.I. Democratic Party, testified the party is against the change, saying the symbol provides a simple way for people to strongly endorse a party.

St. Croix Board of Elections Chairwoman Liliana Belardo de O’Neal and St. Croix Board of Elections member Raymond Williams testified in support of the change, saying it would not be likely to disenfranchise voters, and would reduce spoiled ballots.

Marvin Forbes of the voting rights group, V.I. Action Group, argued in support of the change, saying symbol voting "has served to confuse voters along with exponentially increasing the number of spoiled ballots to the detriment of all political parties."

"There are less than six states in the continental United States that still utilizes this antiquated method," he said."

Sen. Kurt Vialet said that although he regards himself as a staunch Democrat, he supports the change and thinks it will help Democrats more than it hurts them. He asked Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes if there were fewer than 500 party symbol voters in the last election.

"That is correct. It was less than 500,” Fawkes said.

"And yet there were over a thousand spoiled ballots," Vialet said, suggesting that many of them invalidated votes for Democratic Party candidates, spoiling ballots "when a person votes for six democrats and one independent, after hitting the party symbol."

Party symbol voting became a problem in the 2014 general election, creating delays, excess spoiled ballots, a lawsuit and concern over the integrity of the election. (See Related Links below)

In a test run shortly before the general election in 2014, brand new ES&S ballot tabulators purchased that year 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 vote counting was slowed, delaying the results of the election. And because the ballots did not go through the machine, there was no way for voters to know their ballots would be disqualified.

During the process, 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.

After the dust settled, the V.I. Joint Boards of Elections debated with ES&S over whether the machines worked according to their contracted specifications, and the company agreed to work on changing the software to prevent the problem in the future.

ES&S wrote the Joint V.I. Boards of Election on Tuesday, saying they had resolved the software issue so that the tabulators will count the votes according to V.I. law, according to a statement from the Joint Boards of Elections released Thursday.

Voting to send the bill on to the Senate floor for a final vote were Gittens, Sens. Jean Forde, Novelle Francis, Neville James and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly. Sen. Janette Millin Young voted no. Sen. Justin Harrigan was absent.

The committee also approved a bill from Gittens prohibiting candidates who are not of the same political party from running together. Gittens said the bill was necessary to prevent confusion and chaos in the elections.

This issue also came to a head in the 2014 elections, when independent Soraya Diase Coffelt ran for governor with Republican John Canegata. The V.I. Elections System knocked them off the ballot and a U.S. District Court ruling upheld the action, before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it and ordered the two placed back on the ballot.

Another bill from Gittens approved Thursday would increase the number of signatures needed to be placed on the ballot as a candidate for office. It would increase the signatures needed to run for governor, lieutenant governor or delegate to Congress from 50 to 250; for V.I. legislators from 50 to 200; and for other elected offices from 50 to 100.

Belardo de O’Neal argued against the change, saying it could disenfranchise small parties, who may have difficulty coming up with enough signatures. Belardo de O’Neal is a Republican and the Republican Party is very small in the territory.

Gwen Moolenaar, representing the League of Women Voters, spoke in favor of the change to signature requirements, but suggested changing to a percentage based on the number of voters registered with that party.

Gittens and other senators disagreed, saying that would be difficult to implement.

“I can’t support the usage of formulas and percentages because our dynamics change so often,” Gittens said. “Just like how Hovensa closed on St. Croix and many Virgin Islanders, not just Crucians, left the territory. But imagine that fluctuation every time,” he said.

Constant fluctuations would require the Board of Elections and/or the Elections System to recalculate those percentages each term, he said. “Why not one set of numbers?”

Millin Young spoke in opposition to increasing signatures for the nomination. “We should be working to diversify by strengthening the party system,” she said. “The threshold is just too high.”

Moolenaar said that increasing the number of signatures required could suss out the serious candidates.

Sen. Tregenza Roach, a noncommittee member, also spoke against the measure.

“What underlies my non-support is that I think we shouldn’t be thinking about reducing the numbers of people who run for office,” Roach said.

"The test is not getting onto the ballot; the test is getting people to vote for you. And I don’t believe it is a democratic principle to be reducing either the opportunities for people to run or in any way, limiting people’s access to the ballot," he said.

Finally the committee approved and sent to the Senate floor a bill that would remove elected officials from office if they voted in stateside elections. Gittens said some officials in the past have registered to vote in a stateside jurisdiction, so they could vote in the presidential election and then re-registered back in the territory.

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