July 3, 2002 – In a wide-ranging meeting Tuesday, the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections voted to ask the attorney general for a legal opinion on its members who are running for higher office and to reduce primary election costs by reducing the number of polling places to three on St. Thomas and two on St. John. It suggested that St. Croix also have just three polling places.
Fine tuning electoral procedures is a routine undertaking for the board going into an election season. But this year, voting law changes and a resulting court challenge have added extra considerations to the task.
Board members are publicly elected officials. This year three board members have set their sights on higher office as well: Kevin Rodriquez, Shawn-Michael Malone and Lawrence Boschulte have announced their candidacy for the 25th Legislature. At Tuesday's meeting, board member Alecia Wells said the situation has raised ethical concerns in the community.
"People are saying they're making their own laws and governing the election," Wells said.
She pointed out that such conflicts were not a problem before the law was changed in January by the current Legislature in a veto override. Previously, public officials running for public office were required to take a leave of absence from their current positions from the date of filing until the general election — or the primary election, should they be eliminated at that point. They no longer need to do so. (See "Loud protests to quiet changes in voting law".)
. The board voted unanimously to ask Attorney General Iver Strdiron to issue a legal opinion on the position of Elections Board members seeking higher office under the new circumstances.
The board also discussed the possible impact of a court case challenging a different aspect of the new election law. Several St. Thomas residents have sued the V.I. government in District Court saying the aspect of the law which bars campaign activity after 2 a.m. on an election day violates the First Amendment constitutional guarantees of free speech and free assembly.
Malone predicted the court will agree with the plaintiffs, saying "it appears [the law] does violate the Constitution." But what happens after that, he said, will be up to police, who govern conduct on public streets. "We only have jurisdiction around the polls, not in the street where the law is enforced," he said.
Meantime, the board still is responsible for holding primary elections — something it did not anticipate earlier this year, when it expected the territory's three political parties to take it upon themselves to select their candidates for the general election. The law as changed in January specified that "The Board of Elections will be responsible for certifying the process to be used by any political party to select party officers and candidates for public office."
Democrats and Republicans joined forces in court pointing out that there is no provision in the law requiring the parties to foot the bill for the primaries, and said they had no intention of doing so. That left the board in the same position it has faced in previous years: having to hold a primary without adequate funding to do so.
The solution, members decided Tuesday, is to streamline the Sept. 14 primary election process. Given that the turnout for primaries historically is very light, they will open just three polling places on St. Thomas (Joseph Gomez Elementary, Charlotte Amalie High and Addelita Cancryn Junior High Schools) and two on St. John (Julius E. Sprauve and Guy Benjamin Schools). They also recommended that there be three on St. Croix, but it would be up to the St. Croix Board of Elections to make a final decision.
"We had 'x' amount of dollars, and this is the type of election we could have," Boschulte said.
The board will notify the political parties in writing of the plan. Malone said it also still has to confirm the availability of the schools to be used as polling places with the Education Department.
For the general election on Nov. 5, the board discussed expanding the number of polling places for one area of St. Thomas. To relieve congestion at Gomez School, it wants to divide the voting for area residents among three sites — Gomez, the Anna's Retreat Community Center and E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary School.
And for elections to come after November, the board hopes to go into schools for another purpose — to encourage young people turning 18 to register as new V.I. voters.
"We've been to a few of the schools, and the majority of the kids that graduate are under 18 and they go away to school," Boschulte said.
Under the proposal, those turning 18 by the first Tuesday in November 2004 would be able to register in advance. Those planning to go off-island for higher education also would be shown how to vote by absentee ballot.
Meanwhile, because of controversy surrounding absentee ballots in the last election, the board also is reviewing the procedures for mailing, collecting and counting such ballots. One idea under consideration is the use of an official date stamp. The board until now has used pre-stamped envelopes for mail-in ballots, and those envelopes did not receive cancellation stamps from the postal service, so it was not possible to confirm when they were mailed.
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