July 30, 2004 – St. Croix residents got their first introduction on Tuesday evening to the Joint Board of Elections plan for voting reforms mandated by a new federal law, the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress last year.
The reforms cover a wide range of voter and voting system issues, from assistance for those with disability needs to provisional acceptance of ballots from voters whose names cannot be found on official rolls. Also included is provision for mail-in voter registration.
Similar public hearings on the plan are set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the St. John Legislature Building in Cruz Bay and at 6 p.m. Thursday at Palms Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas.
The 51-page V.I. Election Plan documents the territory's effort to develop a long-range plan for implementing the HAVA. According to the HAVA Web site, the main purposes of the act are:
– To establish a program to provide funds to states to replace punch-card voting systems.
– To establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections and provide other assistance with the administration of certain federal election laws and programs.
– To establish minimum election administration standards for states and local government units responsible for administering federal elections.
HAVA calls for sweeping reforms to the nation's voting process, addressing improvements to voting systems and voter access that were identified following the controversial 2000 presidential election.
The V.I. plan was developed by a committee consisting of election officials, current and former elections board members, and representatives of community organizations and interest and advocacy groups.
The Virgin Islands is in a good position to implement the HAVA requirements, according to John Abramson Jr., supervisor of elections. Many of the reforms required by the federal act are already addressed in V.I. election laws and procedures and in reforms being considered by the Joint Board of Elections, he said.
One thing the territory is poised to do in compliance with the federal mandates is letting people with disabilities know how what accommodations are available to assist them in voting privately and independently. The joint board will conduct sensitivity training with election workers and will establish curbside voting and install text telephones, which allow persons with special speech needs to access voting information.
Another thing HAVA requires is that persons who state they are registered to vote but whose names cannot be found on official voter registration lists be allowed to cast provisional ballots. For those who exercise this option, Abramson said, "The board of elections will determine the validity of the vote, and the voter will be notified by the board within a specified amount of time as to the reason the board accepted or rejected the vote."
The act also mandates that voting systems be able to access the names of registered voters who arrive at polling places through an on-site computerized registration program and a mail-in registration system. Mail-in registration is "brand new," Abramson said, and the Legislature will need to amend V.I. election law and develop policies and procedures to institute the program.
The board will begin a "campaign-style" voter outreach program to inform and educate the public of the changes prompted by HAVA, he said.
The Elections System of the Virgin Islands has created a timeline for completion of all the HAVA reforms, which must be in place by January 2006. Abramson has pledged the full cooperation his staff and the Joint Board of Elections to meet the requirements.
Copies of the draft V.I. Election Plan are available at the Elections System offices on St. Croix and St. Thomas.
The joint board is seeking public comment on the plan. Comments should be directed by e-mail to the Elections System. They also may be delivered in person or sent by postal mail to the addresses listed on the Elections System Web site.
St. Croix Board of Elections members present at Tuesday's hearing were Evelyn Messer-James, president, and Raymond Williams, Anita Davila and James Ross.
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