The V.I. Legislature eliminated party-symbol voting and prohibited gubernatorial tickets from different parties during a busy session Wednesday. It also enacted other election reforms, making it illegal for elected officials to register and vote outside the territory; banning electioneering within 200 feet of polling-place boundaries; and slightly increasing the number of signatures needed to run for office, all sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens.
The party symbol voting measure was hotly contested and passed on an 8-7 vote. It 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.
Supporters of the change argued it would reduce spoiled ballots when a voter chooses the party symbol but also votes for someone of a different party. Opponents argued some voters like the ease and simplicity of voting by party symbol and this would disenfranchise them.
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 recently, saying they had resolved the software issue so that the tabulators will count the votes according to V.I. law, eliminating the problem.
Voting to eliminate party symbol voting were Gittens, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, Novelle Francis, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Tregenza Roach, Sammuel Sanes and Kurt Vialet. Voting no were Sens. Clifford Graham, Justin Harrigan, Myron Jackson, Neville James, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Positive Nelson and Janette Millin Young.
The Legislature also passed a bill from Gittens prohibiting candidates who are not of the same political party from running together. 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.
The bill to increase the number of signatures needed to be placed on the ballot as a candidate for called for larger increases originally but was amended to increase the signatures needed to run for any elected office from 50 to 100.
Another measure passed Wednesday would remove elected officials from office if they voted in stateside elections.
One measure passed clarified definitions of election terms like "domicile," "election district" and "records."
Lastly the committee sent on a bill banning electioneering within 200 feet of the property boundary line of a polling place on election day. Sanes, the sponsor, said he had been contacted by people who felt driven away from polling places by the loud, raucous campaigning going on.
Current law forbids campaigning outside polling places. The new revision clarifies and extends how far away it must be.