Unified Elections Board Names Officers, then Divides into District Committees

Arturo Watlington was selected Friday as the unified V.I. Board of Elections chair.
Arturo Watlington was selected Friday as the unified V.I. Board of Elections chair.

After taking a step toward unification Friday with the selection of territorial officers, the newly convened V.I. Board of Elections ended its first meeting by forming two separate district committees charged with overseeing the upcoming primaries on St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix.

Despite continued back and forth between members, who met over video conference, the board voted in Arturo Watlington as chair, Raymond Williams as vice-chair and, representing St. John, Alecia Wells as secretary. Selecting new officers to run the unified board, as specified by multiple court rulings, finally puts elections in compliance with local law, which consolidated the two former district boards a year ago in favor of one.

At the tail end of the meeting, however, board members voted to separate – this time as committees – to run the primary elections in both districts, a move that most said would help avoid delays and keep operations streamlined over the next few weeks.

The board’s minority caucus – made up of newly certified board members Jevon Williams, Harriet Mercer and Max Schanfarber – had a different view, however, and sent out news releases Friday night warning that the decision for separate committees would put the board back in court.

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“The two committees, one for the district of St. Croix and the other for the district of St. Thomas-St. John, will be responsible for conducting this year’s election,” Williams wrote in a brief note to the press. “Yet there’s no provision in territorial elections law that allows for the establishment of district committees under the unified, territory-wide Board of Elections.”

Schanfarber, meanwhile, asked for the board to reconsider its decision at the next meeting.

“I believe this puts the Board of Elections into potential conflict with the intent of the legislation establishing the present unified, territory-wide board as it and it alone is to conduct, oversee, administer, or otherwise regulate, in any way, shape or form, elections across the territory, irrespective of district,” Schanfarber said.

Speaking after the meeting, Watlington said the suggestion for committees actually came up during a recent V.I. Superior Court hearing, as Judge Denise Francois weighed the intent of the new law and the Legislature’s authority to create it.

“The little I heard of that first hearing in Judge Francois’ courtroom, she asked why we can’t just do this,” Watlington said. “The committees would operate just like the districts operated, they would have a committee chair and vice chair that would deal with the logistics in each districts, but they wouldn’t be in charge of the overall process. That would be left up to the unified board.”

Challenges to elections systems and processes have happened frequently over the past 30 years and Watlington said are “nothing new.”

“That is the way it works,” he said. “If the decision is challenged, then it is challenged, but our first priority right now is to make sure these elections are done and are done right. And this is what we thought would be the best way.”

The Democratic primary is scheduled for Aug. 4 and to keep the process going, the unified board approved ballots for both districts, along with polling places. Sites approved for St. Thomas are the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center, possibly Addelita Cancryn Junior High School (if the site isn’t ready soon, voters there will also go to UVI,) Lockhart Elementary School and the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library.

Julius Sprauve School is the only polling station approved for St. John, while sites on St. Croix are Juanita Gardine and Ricardo Richards elementary schools, St. Croix Educational Complex, Claude O. Markoe Elementary and the D.C. Canegata Multipurpose Center.

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