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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 21, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentSenate Calls for Transparency and Accountability as Elections Presents Budget

Senate Calls for Transparency and Accountability as Elections Presents Budget

Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes presents the agency’s budget at Thursday’s Senate hearing. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Caroline Fawkes, the supervisor of Elections, testified about the numerous challenges faced by her office, including incorrect mailing addresses and the need for updated technology, at the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance hearing Thursday.

Sen. Ray Fonseca raised concerns about the high costs associated with returned correspondence due to incorrect addresses. Fawkes acknowledged the issue, stating, “The onus is on the voter to come in and update their information. We do press releases, send reminders, and work with the postal service, but ultimately, it is up to the individuals to provide accurate information.”

The high volume of returned correspondence has significant implications for both the Election System and candidates. Candidates often send thank-you letters and other correspondence, only to have them returned due to incorrect addresses. This not only incurs additional costs but also hampers communication with constituents. Fawkes elaborated, “We are working with a company stateside to verify and correct addresses, but it remains an ongoing challenge.”

Regarding the budget for the Board of Elections, Fawkes explained the request for an increase from $250,000 to $427,860, citing the need for personnel services, stipends, training, and voter registration drives.

“The increase is justified by the necessity to conduct voter registration drives, provide training, and ensure the proper functioning of the board,” she said. The budget allocation also includes funds for conducting board meetings and stipends for board members, which are essential for the smooth operation of the election process.

The proposed budget of $3,427,860 includes $3 million for the office and $427,860 for the Board of Elections. The office has 12 employees, with eight classified positions and five exempt positions. There is currently one vacant position. The budget allocation for the Office of the Supervisor includes $1.4 million for personnel services, $394,000 for fringe benefits, $65,000 for supplies, $1,025,500 for professional services and training, $30,000 for capital outlays, and $85,000 for utility services.

Fawkes highlighted that 53 percent of the budget is spent on salaries and fringe benefits, 36 percent on other services, six percent on capital outlays, three percent on supplies, and five percent on utilities. The classified staff are expected to receive a pay increase, which is included in the budget request. “Our budget reflects the need to adequately compensate our staff, provide necessary training, and ensure the efficient operation of our office,” Fawkes explained.

The Board of Elections’ budget of $427,860 is broken down into $160,760 for personnel services, $36,600 for supplies, $2,000 for supplies, and $268,500 for other services, training, and stipends. Fawkes emphasized the importance of voter education, outreach, and election-specific training and certification, which are included in the budget allocation. “Investing in education and training is crucial for maintaining a knowledgeable and competent election staff,” she said.

The office also requested a supplemental budget of $200,000 to help with the 2024 General Election, which includes the Sixth Constitutional Convention. This additional funding is necessary to ensure the smooth execution of the election process and address any unforeseen challenges that may arise.

Fonseca inquired about any pending lawsuits against the Election System, to which Fawkes responded that there are currently no known lawsuits. This was a critical point of discussion, as legal challenges can have significant financial implications for the Election System. Fawkes assured the committee that her office is diligent in addressing any issues that could lead to legal disputes, thus mitigating potential costs.

The hearing also highlighted the need for better technology and transparency in the election process. Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. emphasized the importance of using technology to enhance transparency and public engagement. Fawkes responded by outlining current efforts, including the use of Microsoft Teams for remote participation in board meetings and live feeds for election-related events. “We aim to make the election process as transparent as possible by utilizing available technology and ensuring public access to key events,” Fawkes explained.

However, she also highlighted the financial constraints faced by her office, noting, “While initiatives like a campaign disclosure public platform are important for transparency, we must weigh these against other pressing needs due to budget limitations.” The campaign disclosure platform would allow the public to view candidates’ financial reports online, enhancing transparency and accountability. Fawkes mentioned that while this initiative is important, it is currently weighed against other priorities due to cost considerations.

Francis further inquired about the use of technology to ensure the integrity of voting machines. Fawkes explained that the voting machines are serialized and tagged with tamper-evident systems. “Each district has different color tags, and the machines are sealed by board members. The process is documented, and audits are conducted to ensure accuracy,” she said. 

The discussion on federal grants revealed the complexities of managing and utilizing these funds effectively. Fawkes detailed the allocation of grants for various purposes, including upgrading e-poll books and purchasing new equipment. She mentioned that the Election System received a grant of $200,000 each in 2022 and 2023, with a significant portion allocated for enhancing election security. However, concerns were raised about the clarity and specificity of these expenditures.

Francis expressed concern about the approval process for grant-funded projects, stating, “There should be an action plan drawn up and approved before initiatives are implemented to ensure compliance and proper use of funds.” Fawkes assured the committee that narratives and specific project plans are submitted for approval, emphasizing, “We always submit a narrative and ensure our projects align with federal guidelines.”

Fawkes highlighted that the grants are used for projects that enhance the Election System’s security and efficiency. “We are looking at battery-type solar energy components for our facilities to ensure uninterrupted operations, especially during power outages,” she said.

This initiative is part of a broader effort to improve the resilience and reliability of the election infrastructure. The grants also support the development of an online voter registration system, which will allow residents to register and update their information electronically. “This will streamline the registration process and reduce the burden on our office,” Fawkes explained. The online system is expected to enhance accessibility and convenience for voters, particularly those with mobility issues or limited access to transportation.

The topic of early voting and the associated costs was another critical area of discussion. Fawkes explained that early voting is conducted at Election System offices on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, with reduced days for St. John due to lower voter turnout. She highlighted the logistical and financial challenges of managing early voting within the fiscal year constraints. Sen. Dwayne DeGraff raised concerns about the timely encumbrance of funds, to which Fawkes responded, “We strive to obligate funds by the end of November and manage expenses efficiently. However, vendor delays in submitting invoices can pose challenges.” 

Fawkes emphasized the importance of early voting in increasing voter participation. “Early voting provides greater flexibility for voters and helps reduce congestion on election day,” she said. The election system has seen a positive response to early voting, with many voters taking advantage of the opportunity to cast their ballots ahead of election day. However, the cost of early voting, including staffing, equipment, and facility expenses, needs to be carefully managed to stay within budget.

Sen. Franklin Johnson inquired about the Election System’s financial management practices, unpaid invoices, and outstanding balances. Fawkes reported that the outstanding balance had been significantly reduced from $252,000 in April to $54,898 as of the latest report. “We have worked diligently to pay our vendors and reduce outstanding balances,” she said. Ensuring timely payment to vendors is crucial for maintaining good relationships and ensuring the smooth operation of the election process.

The committee also discussed the need for detailed budget justifications. Francis emphasized the importance of providing detailed breakdowns of expenses to justify budget requests. “We need to see historical expenditure data and projections to ensure that the requested funds are necessary and well-justified,” he said.

Fawkes agreed and committed to providing detailed justifications for future budget requests. Transparency in budget allocations is essential for building trust and ensuring that public funds are used effectively.

Fawkes highlighted the importance of professional services and supplies in the election system’s budget. “Our expenditures include upgrading electronic poll books, purchasing new voting machines, and enhancing security measures,” she explained.

Rupert Ross, the director of the Bureau of Information Technology (BIT) also testified at the committee hearing Thursday. Ross outlined the bureau’s fiscal year 2025 budget request of $11,799,620. This budget includes $1,950,480 for personnel services, $827,907 for fringe benefits, $122,000 for supplies, and $1,277,660 for other services. Additionally, the bureau requested $3,202,915 to renew its Microsoft Support Contract and enterprise licensing agreement and $3,206,206 to support critical areas and initiatives essential for the seamless functioning and advancement of the agency.

Ross highlighted the need for these funds to support the bureau’s operations and ensure the continuity of essential services. “The requested budget will enable us to maintain and upgrade our technological infrastructure, ensuring that we can meet the needs of the government and the public,” he said. The bureau’s budget also includes funds for renewing important software licenses, subscriptions, and advisory services critical for the department’s continued functionality and efficiency.

The BIT has 29 positions, with 14 classified positions and 15 exempt positions. There are currently five vacancies, which Ross emphasized need to be filled to ensure the bureau’s effective operation. “Our team is dedicated to providing the highest level of service, but we need adequate staffing to meet the growing demands placed on our department,” he explained. The budget request also includes a salary increase for all personnel and provisions for overtime, reflecting the increased workload and responsibilities of the bureau.

Francis summed up the committee’s sentiment, stating, “We must ensure that every dollar spent is accounted for and that our Election System is equipped to handle the challenges it faces. Transparency, accountability, and careful planning are key to achieving these goals.”

Sen. Donna A. Frett-Gregory, chair of the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of fiscal responsibility. “Our goal is to ensure that the funds allocated are used effectively to address the needs of our community and enhance the operations of our governmental departments,” she said. 

Sens. Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis Jr., Dwayne M. DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, and Franklin D. Johnson attended Thursday’s hearing.

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