Aug. 3, 2006 — Labor Commissioner Cecil R. Benjamin, also the state chair of the local Democratic Party, recently announced he would be filing an injunction on behalf of the party against the St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections for its decision to open only seven of 14 available polling sites during the primary election in September.
Over the past two months, Benjamin has lobbied the board to open all sites within the district. In a recent press release, Benjamin reiterated this request, saying that there "must be full, equal and free access to all polling stations" for the territory's voters.
Benjamin added that a high voter turnout is expected in September, "due to the large number of Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial candidates" and the fact that an "unprecedented amount of non-Democratic voters are changing their party affiliation in order to participate in the Democratic primary."
Members of the St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections voted to limit the number of polling sites at a board meeting held last month on St. John. At the time, board chairman Lawrence Boschulte said the decision was based on a number of factors, including the need to save money and the fact that the number of registered voters at primary elections over the past six years has "never surpassed" 10,000 (See "September Primary to Feature Limited Number of Polling Sites").
However, according to attorney Michael Joseph, hired by the Democratic Party to handle the case, the board can't decide not to open all the polling sites unless they "have a compelling reason."
When contacted Thursday afternoon, Joseph said that the board's "thinking is flawed" and goes against the federal Voting Rights Act, which provides for "equal rights" for all voters.
"The U.S. Supreme Court says that you must treat both the primary and general elections as equal," he explained. "So if the polls shall be open for the general election, then the board can't restrict sites during the primary election unless they have a compelling state interest, which shows that there's no necessity for them to open the polls."
Joseph added that the board has also violated the V.I. Code, which states that election officials can make decisions about the "conduct" of primaries and general elections, "to the end that the election process shall be uniform throughout the Virgin Islands."
Since the St. Croix District Board of Elections has decided to open all of its polling sites, Joseph said, then the St. Thomas-St. John board must do the same. "I know that they are claiming that less than 50 percent of the voters will show up at the primary," he added. "But really, what do they have–a crystal ball? The party chair has already told them this is going to be a different race. And to say that they're trying to save money is not a compelling enough reason by constitutional standards."
Boschulte disagrees. When contacted Thursday evening, he said that the additional money would help the board address any problems that arise between the primary and general elections. "I respect the party's decision to take us to court," he said. "But I hope they see that this is just going to use up more money. Why didn't they say anything two years ago, or four years ago, when we were able to accommodate 7,000 voters with just two polling sites? I'm not saying this is not going to be a big election, but we've more than doubled the amount of sites; I think it's going to be enough to accommodate all the voters that will be coming out."
He added that he has "only received six written complaints" from government officials since the board made its decision last month. "I don't think that this is representative of the voting public," Boschulte said. "And voters will not be disenfranchised by the number of sites open during the primary."
However, the Source did receive an e-mail Thursday from concerned members of the Democratic Party who are circulating a petition calling for the St. Thomas-St. John District Board of Elections to open all polling sites during the primary.
"In a primary election year in which one voting district [St. Croix] has provided twice as many polling places as its neighboring voting district, which features a comparable population, it is clear that equal protection is not being afforded to all voters," the e-mail said.
The e-mail also asked elections officials to "at least open polls" at: Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, Ulla Muller and Leonard Dober elementary schools, the Curriculum Center and the Winston Raymo polling site.
Polls scheduled to be open on St. Thomas during the primary are: Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean high schools, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, and Gladys Abraham, Joseph Sibilly and Joseph Gomez elementary schools.
Julius Sprauve Elementary School will be open on St. John.
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