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Elections Board Grudgingly Agrees to Open All Polls

Aug. 9, 2006 – The St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections decided Wednesday – not without grumbling and resentment – to open all polling places in the district for the primary election Sept. 9.
Although he voted "Yes" on the motion introduced by board member Lorna Thomas, Arturo Watlington – also a board member – said the call to open all the polls was based on ignorance.
Faced with 404 signatures on various petitions calling for the board to open all the polls, board district chairman Lawrence Boschulte did the math and came up with 3 to 4 percent of the voters eligible to vote in the primary having signed the petitions. After the four members who made a bare quorum voted three to one to open the polls, Boschulte murmured they were doing so for "3 percent" of the people.
Last week Democratic Party State Chairman Cecil Benjamin filed an injunction on behalf of the party against the board for its decision to open only six of 14 available polling locations on St. Thomas and St. John. Benjamin cited the anticipated record turnout for the primary, which pits three gubernatorial teams and 10 out of a possible seven senatorial candidates against each other for spots on the November ballot, as the basis for opening all the polling locations.
Benjamin, speaking at the district board meeting held at the Elections office Wednesday afternoon, said he was only seeking "fairness" in the process.
But Thomas, who referred to herself as a lifelong Democrat, asked why a member of her own party hadn't spoken to her as a member of the board before taking legal action.
Though Thomas was the one who made the motion to open all the polls, she was clear she wasn't happy about the process that backed the board against the wall to take the action. Thomas said, "The only person [from the party] … who discussed this with me was Glenn Smith."
Thomas also took umbrage with rumors and "whispers" in the community that suggested the board's decision to open only six locations had to do with helping one candidate or another. "Suggestions that the decision was favoring one candidate over another goes beyond logic," she said.
Lesley Comissiong, a political activist who has worked on several campaigns on the mainland, said nobody had discussed "the numbers," in making the plea to open the extra polls. Before the meeting, Comissiong said the decision about long lines and the necessity for all the polls to be open should be based on statistical projections, which she said are a simple formula used in other places that can project voter turnout by using registration numbers and historical data. No one was providing that data in making their arguments, she said.
However, Thomas and Watlington said it would be even more foolish and wasteful to go through a court proceeding than it was to open all the polls. "I'll go along with the ignorance," Watlington said.
Keith Richards, the governor's special assistant in charge of capital projects, who attended the meeting, said his problem was with which polling sites were not going to be open. He said it seemed that the sites that people walked to instead of driving to were the very ones that were not going to be open. He mentioned Dober Elementary School, Oswald Harris Court, and Ulla Muller Elementary School. "Just an observation," Richards said. "They are all neighborhood polling places."
And all troublesome places, Watlington countered. He said electioneering too close to the polls had been a repeated problem at the mentioned locations in other election years.
Both attorney Mark Hodge and community activist Jason Budsan, who circulated petitions to open all the polls, said confusion on the part of the voter was another good reason to have all sites open.
But Watlington, a former senator, said it was up to the party members to get people to the right locations on primary day. He said interacting with the voters was something he enjoyed about running for office.
In the end, Boschulte was the only one of the four board members, which included George Blackhall, to vote against opening all the polls.
Thomas said Thursday morning that a process that was intended to be simple and straightforward had been politicized. She said she was disappointed that some of the programs that the board had in mind for public education and outreach would have to be tabled because of the cost of opening all the polls.
Thomas pointed out that the board makes it easy for anyone to vote by providing provisional ballots at all the polls and also by allowing absentee ballots to be used up to 10 days before the election.
Despite the controversy, Thomas said, "We have made unprecedented registration drives. There have been days when there have been as many as four drives." She added that board members have taken requests for elderly and disabled and went into homes to register people.
Another disappointment, she said, was that plans to provide transportation on elections days would have to be reigned as the money earmarked for that effort would have to be reprogrammed .
Another question that arose at the meeting about the number of machines that would be made available for the primary was clarified Wednesday night by John Abramson, supervisor of elections, in a phone conversation. Natalie Thomas, Election System executive assistant, had told the board that the technician had said only 75 machines had the handicapped attachments ready. When question about what that meant, she left to place a call. She came back to say more modules were on the way and that she had been told the board could have as many as they wanted.
Abramson, who had not been in attendance at the meeting, said Wednesday night, he would have all 150 machines ready if that what was needed.
He said he had decided to have all the machines retrofitted for the audio necessary to accommodate handicapped individuals. "I was only required to have one handicapped machine for each of the 14 sites," in the district, he said. "But I went ahead and had them all retrofitted for uniformity." He said all 150 attachments were expected on island by Friday.
The next. St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections meeting is scheduled for Aug. 24.
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