July 8, 2002 – Educating voters about the current initiative to change the way V.I. senators are elected is the responsibility of "the people who are running the initiative," John Abramson Jr., the territory's supervisor of elections, said Monday.
"The people" — calling themselves the Committee for Legislative Reform — say they've had some striking successes doing just that. And on Tuesday, they will launch a radio campaign promoting their cause: to make Senate seats numbered in each district so that candidates, both incumbents and challengers, must run for a particular seat.
During St. John Festival events last week in Cruz Bay, more than 400 of the island's approximately 2,000 registered voters signed green petitions supporting the initiative, a Monday release from the committee stated. "Percentage-wise, St. John leads the way in supporting numbered seats, while St. Croix leads in volume" with more than 800 signatures, it said.
Initiative is a formal public process set out in the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the territory's de facto constitution. For the numbered seats initiative to go forward, proponents must collect the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in each district, or about 5,500 people total. If the territory's Joint Board of Elections verifies that this has been accomplished, the petition will go to the Legislature.
So far, the committee says, it has about 20 percent of the needed signatures, and it has set a deadline of Aug. 1 to come up with the rest. By law, it has until November, but waiting until then would rule out getting the issue on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, which is the committee's goal.
If the initiative goes to the lawmakers and if they then approve it, numbered Senate seats will become law. Senators until now have been elected by district, except for the single at-large legislator who must be a resident of St. John but is elected territorywide. The one at-large seat would not be affected by the initiative.
A reality check makes clear that since the Senate majority just enacted legislation making all seats at large — that is, to be voted upon by residents of both districts — it is highly unlikely to reverse itself and vote for the numbered seats petition now. The Legislature does not, however, have the option of voting the initiative down and out. It the petition is not approved in the Senate, it will be put on the Nov. 5 ballot for a vote.
Radio campaign kicking off
So far, according to Monday's release, "about 20 of the territory's prominent leaders and politicians" have not only pledged support for the initiative but also have "recorded sound bites for the committee's 'Did You Know' campaign" that's to begin airing on the radio.
"As more of the territory's top politicians from every side of the political arena pledge support for the initiative, it is becoming clear that the movement to change politics as we know it is powerful," the committee said.
Among individuals seeking public office in November, it cited support from incumbent Delegate Donna M. Christensen; gubernatorial candidates Michael Bornn, Cora Christian and Gov. Charles Turnbull; lieutenant governor candidate Vargrave Richards; and senatorial candidates Craig Barshinger, Elroi Baumann, Sen. Lorraine Berry, Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., Sen. Roosevelt David, Sen. Emmett Hansen II and Luther Renee.
Hansen, who last year switched his Senate alliance from the minority to the majority, had joined his eight majority colleagues in voting for the at-large election bill that passed by a straight partisan 9-6 vote in the pre-dawn hours of May 24.
The initiative had come into existence four days before that when a "titling board" consisting of Abramson, Attorney General Iver Stridiron and Legislative Legal Counsel Yvonne Tharpes drafted its wording. They took that action after verification that 1 percent of the registered voters in both districts had signed a preliminary petition advocating numbered seats.
Proponents say that a numbered seats system would require incumbents to run on their records, while the challengers for a particular seat would need to persuade voters that they could do a better job than the person occupying it.
This is the first time that an initiative has been attempted in the territory. The Organic Act provides that if the Senate does not enact the proposal and it goes to a public vote, a majority of the territory's registered voters must cast ballots on the measure.
If a majority of that majority votes for the initiative, it will become what the committee terms "the people's law" — the first law ever enacted by the people of the Virgin Islands. That is, it will unless another aspect of the law comes into play.
Senate could give voters a second choice
The Senate has the option of formulating its own proposal to be put to the public along with the grassroots initiative. If the lawmakers go this route, voters would cast separate ballots (for, against or no vote) for the two proposals. In theory, an individual could vote "for" both the grassroots initiative and the Senate proposal — even if they are diametrically opposed.
What the law specifies is that if both proposals get the support of a majority of those voting, whichever one has the higher number of votes will prevail.
Abramson said Monday that if the legislators decide to submit their own proposal, "they can word it any way they like, as long as it's germane to what we're dealing with. The subject is the method of electing senators." Thus, he said, the lawmakers might propose a variation on the committee's initiative, or they could blatantly put forward something totally contradictory, such as the at-large seats plan they recently passed.
If a majority of registered voters does cast ballots and, against all odds, the same number of votes are cast for both proposals, Abramson said, "neither proposal prevails."
Abramson noted that the elections system is not responsible for voter education. "We do it as a matter of course," he said, "but the people who are running the initiative, it is their responsibility to do that, according to how the statute is written."
He said elections officials "have been asking the Legislature for a long time for funding for voter education," hoping to establish a division for educational outreach in the Office of the Supervisor of Elections. With Fiscal Year 2003 budget hearings under way before the Senate Finance Committee, he added, "We'll be asking again. Hopefully they'll say yes."
The immediate aim of the "Did You Know" campaign is to encourage registered voters to sign petitions to place the initiative before the Legislature. In another electoral "first," a petition can be accessed electronically on the Internet, at the Source newspapers Data web site.
"Despite the overwhelming support the committee has received so far, it needs as much help as possible to ensure it has the signatures it needs by Aug. 1," Monday's release stated. In particular, it said, volunteers are being sought to collect petition signatures at business and civic group meetings and at high-traffic retail locations such as supermarkets, major department stores and volume discount outlets. Anyone interested in volunteering or in obtaining a "Numbered Seats Now" bumper sticker is asked to call 772-4000 or 772-4242.
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