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Elections Board Rejects Recall Decision

Board of Elections Chairman Rupert Ross. It will be up to the courts to decide if four members of the St. Croix District Board of Elections must face a recall vote, after the board Wednesday overruled Supervisor of Elections John Abramson and decided to use a higher threshold level for the number of signatures needed to force a vote.

By a vote of 2-1 with the four recall targets abstaining, the board rejected the supervisor’s decision to use the Attorney General’s suggested methodology to determine the number of votes needed to force the recalls. That means that the petitioners seeking to recall had to meet a much higher threshold to trigger a recall election, and they did not come close.

At a press conference on March 27, Abramson announced that, using the methodology sought by the petitioners and recommended by the Attorney General’s Office, enough signatures had been gathered to trigger a recall vote against board members Ana L. "Anita" Davila, Carmen Golden, Lisa Harris-Moorhead and Dodson James. They failed to gather enough signatures to force the recall of Chairman Rupert Ross or Raymond Williams.

At the time Abramson said he disagreed with the methodology.

Wednesday morning, a relatively routine Board of Elections meeting took a sudden twist at the end when Williams offered a motion to reject Abramson’s decision on the methodology, ruling he was mistaken in following the advice of the Attorney General.

With the four recall targets abstaining, Ross and Williams voted for the motion and Adelbert Bryan, the only member not subject to a recall petition, voted against it. Bryan challenged Ross’s decision that the measure passed by the 2-1 vote, saying the two votes, or even all three votes, did not constitute a majority of the members present. Ross ruled that the measure was passed by a majority of those voting.

The move and Ross’s subsequent ruling brought looks of surprise and mocking laughter from members of the audience.

Moments later the board voted to adjourn, again over Bryan’s objection.

The law says a group seeking to recall an official must obtain signatures of registered voters equal to "at least 50 percent of the whole number of votes cast for that office." Because voters are instructed to pick three candidates from a field, but are not required to do so, there is no way to determine the number of voters, Abramson has said. Instead, he believes the law requires that all votes for all candidates in the field be counted, and half that number is the threshold.

The supervisor has pointed out that the law specifies 50 percent of the votes for the office, not 50 percent of the voters for a specific candidate. But the math means that the threshold could be significantly higher than the number of people actually voting for the office, and in a hypothetical case could add up to more signatures required than there are registered voters.

The petitioners contend that when the law calls for signatures equal to 50 percent of the whole number of votes cast for the office, it means the number of votes cast for the individual office holder, which is a much more easily attained number. Because the votes are cast over a wide pool of candidates, such a methodology means a fraction of the voters who actually voted in the election could overturn its results with a recall campaign.

Using Abramson’s math, the number of signatures required in this case would be 11,492, because 22,984 votes were cast in the board of elections race in the 2010 elections. Using the petitioners’ preferred system the number of signatures needed varied from each member, ranging from 1,583 to 2,864, because each member received a different number of votes.

The number of signatures ruled valid turned in for each separate recall petition ranged from 2,379 to 2,452, enough to force four of six recalls – or not nearly enough.

After the meeting, Colleen Clarke, one of the leaders of the recall drive, said she wasn’t surprised by the board’s action and always had assumed it would be up to the courts to decide.

"That’s why we filed the complaint," she said, referring to a legal action filed by the petitioners in federal court in February. That action, which has yet to have been heard, seeks to have the District Court clarify the law.

"We’re waiting for the judgment of the court," Clarke said. "I’m confident the court will do what is right."

Speaking after the meeting, Ross said when Abramson announced at 4:45 p.m., March 27, that he was accepting the Attorney General’s advice and using the lower number, they did not have the statement in hand. It was sent over by e-mail at 5:10, and Ross said after reading it, he couldn’t go along with Abramson’s decision.

According to Ross, the Attorney General’s statement was a reply to a request for advice. If the statement had been couched as an official opinion it would have carried more legal weight.

He added that it was advice the board hadn’t sought. Ross said he asked the Attorney General’s Office for advice on what role the Board of Elections could or should play in the potential recall of some of its own member. He was advised that the board’s job in this case was to monitor the supervisor and determine if the procedures being followed were correct. The statement then went on to advice using the less stringent standard, but Ross said they hadn’t sought that.

"He answered a question we didn’t ask," the chairman said.

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