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April 20, 2002 – The Virgin Islands Board of Elections is still trying to work out who should pay the $160,000 it will cost to hold primary elections in September.
Some elections officials believe the political parties should be responsible for choosing – and paying for the process of choosing – their own candidates, according to John Abramson, the elections supervisor.
On the other hand, the Republican and Democratic parties say the Board of Elections is responsible by law to conduct the elections, and that means paying for them as well.
"We've had a raging debate over who is to be responsible for what," Abramson said. "But let me assure you, we will have the primaries in September. The debate will not die, though. It's a question of who will pay."
Abramson spoke to about two dozen people at the League of Women Voters annual meeting Saturday at the University of the Virgin Islands. He covered a range of issues surrounding elections, from the cost of primaries to the debate over election-day electioneering and ways the board tries to stop election fraud.
V.I. law states that the Board of Elections must oversee the selection of party candidates, but it does not say whether the board or the parties themselves must pay for it.
Only about 12 percent of registered voters traditionally participate in the territory's primaries versus about 65 percent in the general elections, he said. Those numbers raise questions about the need to open all 16 polling sites territory-wide, as the cost could be cut substantially if the sites were consolidated, he said.
A couple of LWV members said they believed the state GOP and Democratic parties were skirting their responsibility by relying on the Board of Elections. The Independent Citizens Movement has traditionally given the board its list of chosen candidates.
"It is irresponsible for the parties not to get together and choose their own candidates," league member Jason Budsan said.
The Elections Board also has supported recent legislation that would ban electioneering on election day, a break from a long tradition of lively campaigning outside polling stations. The Legislature passed the law by overruling a veto by Gov. Charles Turnbull, but the law is now under challenge in District Court.
That lawsuit claims that the ban on electioneering violates constitutional rights. Abramson said a ruling is expected shortly after Carnival.
"If you don't see people campaigning at the polls, you'll know we won," he said.
Historically the Virgin Islands public has paid for the cost of primaries.
In 1997, the elections board and Abramson recommended election reform legislation that included having parties pay for both officer elections and public office elections. The language regarding public office was dropped in the bill that became law in 1998. Sen. Adelbert Bryan later amended the public-office language back into the law, but Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the amendment.
As the 2000 elections neared, Democratic leaders said they weren’t prepared to handle their own party elections. The law said the board had to certify each party's plan to elect its officers, but none of the parties submitted one for certification. So the board decided to handle the party officer elections "as a courtesy," Abramson said at the time. But he added, "I don’t believe the taxpayers of this territory should be footing the bill for the political parties."
Leaders of all three parties pledged in 2000 to institute a process to elect their officers before the 2002 elections.
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