While Gov. Kenneth Mapp has called for a special election by April 9 to fill the vacant seat in the Senate, St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections members had more questions than answers Thursday about whether they could pull it off, especially since, according to law, they might not technically exist.
The board has been discussing for months the impact of the recently enacted Act 7892, which establishes a single elections board of 14 members. Since the law was passed, board members have questioned when it goes into effect, how it impacts members who were just elected and, most recently, whether it has actually dissolved both district boards until the new, single board is established.
Concerns over the board’s status came to a head last month in V.I. District Court hearings meant to settle a residency challenge filed against senator-elect Kevin Rodriquez. While in court, Judge Curtis Gomez said that the law’s language appears to dissolve both district boards, which, he also said in a later opinion, could only be fixed by the Legislature itself.
In an opinion filed this week, Gomez wrote that inconsistencies in the new law mean “there may be some doubt as to the current survival of any entity that would hold an election.” But he also concluded that changing the law “involves policy considerations that are appropriately left to the first branch of government,” which is the Legislature.
During Thursday’s meeting, District Elections Board Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. said he had received correspondence earlier in the day from the Senate’s minority caucus saying that its members “intend to move corrections” to the law.
“Unless this is cleared up by the Legislature, this matter is left in limbo,” Watlington said. “Even the Joint Board is made up of two districts and it’s the districts that certify the election results. Given that scenario, I hope you can all see the dilemma we are in; there is no way this bill can be fixed technically. It must be repealed if we are to move forward with any election processes up to 2020.”
If the law is repealed, the Elections System would still need a $140,000 appropriation from the Legislature to hold a special election. Given the government’s current financial state, some board members questioned where the money would be coming from and if they would get it before April 8, the date they said would be best for the election.
Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes said that for everything to come together, her office has to start the process by Feb. 15; the staff has already been putting together nomination packets, she said.
While board members said that anyone can run in the special election for the vacant seat, which would be in the St. Thomas-St. John district, Fawkes said that she would have to seek legal advice before allowing Rodriquez to be a candidate, should he decide to run again.
Rodriquez came in sixth in November’s general election to fill seven St. Thomas-St. John legislative seats and the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections certified his candidacy and the final vote.
But in December, the eighth-place candidate, Janelle Sarauw, joined by a campaign worker, sued in V.I. Superior Court to stop Rodriquez from being seated, arguing that Rodriquez had asserted in court documents filed in 2016 that he was a bona fide resident of Tennessee and therefore could not meet the three-year V.I. residency requirement set by V.I. law.
The case went through the V.I. Superior and Supreme Courts before Rodriquez filed to have it removed to District Court in an effort to determine whether the Legislature had the power to seat him.
In his ruling this week, Gomez dismissed both Rodriquez’s suit seeking to have the Legislature determine his eligibility and the suit Sarauw filed seeking to force the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections to decertify the election and disqualify Rodriquez.
The ruling leaves in place a V.I. Supreme Court opinion holding Rodriquez does not meet the V.I. residency requirement and paves the way for a special election.
While board members said Thursday that they will try to move forward with the special election if they can, some also pointed out that the Revised Organic Act leaves the power to determine what happens to Rodriquez with the Legislature.
“It’s only the Legislature that can say if he’s in or out,” Watlington said. “This could eventually turn into a constitutional issue, where you’re supposed to have a separation of powers but one of those powers isn’t doing its job.”