Initiative to Reapportion Senate to Go to Voters

Mary Moorhead appearing before the V.I. Legislature on July 11, 2016. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)
Mary Moorhead appearing before the V.I. Legislature on July 11, 2016. (V.I. Legislature photo by Barry Leerdam)

A petition for a ballot initiative to rearrange the districts of the 15 V.I. senators has received enough signatures and will be on the general election ballot in November.

Currently, the territory elects 15 senators, with seven for St. Croix, seven for St. Thomas and one “at large” elected territory-wide, who is traditionally from St. John, although there is no legal requirement for that. The top seven vote-getters in each district are elected, so the final person to be seated may not actually be terribly popular.

No other U.S. territory or state has a similar system for electing legislators.

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Under the proposal, promoted by civic group St. Croix Government Retirees Inc. and its president, Mary Moorhead, the territory would still have 15 senators. The USVI would be split into five legislative districts; two on St. Croix; two on St. Thomas and one on St. John. The St. John district would have one senator and each of the St. Thomas and St. Croix districts would have two senators. Then three senators who reside on St. Croix and three who reside on St. Thomas would run at large, to be elected by all the voters of the Virgin Islands. This would mean six senators would be elected at large, up from one senator now.

Only an at-large senator could be chosen to be president of the Legislature.

The initiative proposal also makes slight changes to senatorial allotments. Under current law, each senator has a base allotment of 2 percent of the Legislature’s budget – or $400,000 per year – for office expenses and personal assistants. Senate officers get additional amounts. The initiative proposal makes slight changes to the language of the current law to account for the changes in how senators would be elected and officers of the Legislature chosen.

“The petition for an initiative seeks to restore the republican form of government to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands by way of reapportionment, establishing a reapportioned structure that categorically assigns responsibility to every senator for which they will be accountable,” Moorhead said in an Op Ed in March promoting the initiative in March.

“One at-large senator checking fourteen district senators is a mockery of the system advocated by the Founding Fathers,” Moorhead wrote.

Senate President Myron Jackson has called three Committee of the Whole meetings across the territory and invited the public to weigh in. The first is scheduled for 5 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Cleone Henrietta Creque Legislative Hall on St. John, to be followed by two zoning request hearings. The second meeting is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas, and the third at 6 p.m. Oct. 16 at the V.I. Cardiac Center on St. Croix.

Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes notified Jackson Oct. 1 the petition had enough signatures and had been certified. The Revised Organic Act, the federal law that acts as a constitution for the territory until such a time as the territory enacts one of its own, says the Legislature has 30 days to approve or disapprove the initiative. If it approves, the changes are enacted. If it disapproves, it goes on the general election ballot. The Legislature can also propose a second, alternative ballot initiative, alongside this one, for voters to choose between – or choose neither.

To become law, a majority of the voters in the territory must vote on the measure and a majority of those voting on it must vote in favor.

Those interested in testifying before the Legislature on this can call Jackson’s office at 340-693-3504 or submit testimony in writing to [email protected]

The petition needed 2,298 signatures on St. Croix and received 2,343. It needed 2,530 on St.Thomas-St. John and got 2,553.

If a ballot initiative is approved, it is the law of the territory and the Legislature and governor would have no say in the matter.

There have been several recall efforts of senators and members of the board of elections and one effort to get an initiative on the ballot.

The hurdle of petition signatures and votes is high and to date, no V.I. recall or initiative effort has been successful. Most never get on the ballot.

In 2001, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce abandoned a lawsuit to try to enforce a referendum to reduce the size of the Legislature and tried to get an initiative on the ballot to do the same thing. The referendum passed but was non-binding and the Legislature declined to make the changes. After months of effort, the initiative drive came up short on signatures.

In 2003 there were two unsuccessful recall efforts. Teachers unions and others tried to recall Gov. Charles Turnbull but failed to get enough signatures. And opponents of the Legislature’s approval of slot machines called “video lottery terminals” on St. Thomas that year, despite V.I. law saying “any electronic … device” that enabled gambling could only be licensed on St. Croix, tried unsuccessfully to recall senators involved in the vote.

A 2007 to recall St. Croix senators for voting for big raises for themselves late at night at the end of 2006 also failed to get enough signatures and the raises and senators remained. Due to that legislation, the territory’s senators and governor are among the highest paid in the nation.

A 2012 recall effort against several members of the St. Croix Board of Elections for allowing Alicia “Chucky” Hansen on the ballot despite her federal tax convictions was the first ever to get onto the ballot. It fell short at the polls. Hansen was ultimately pardoned by Gov. John deJongh Jr., clearing the way for her ultimate reelection.

Recall requirements are very similar but not identical.

Since in any given election a portion of voters do not vote and many voters do not bother with down-ballot races or ballot questions, that majority of all voters can be difficult to capture.

In 2014, for example, there were no initiatives but there were two referendums: one on medical marijuana, which won handily, and one to increase senators’ terms of office, which lost handily. Each got a total of about 18,000 votes, both for and against. That was out of almost 28,000 ballots cast and 51,000 registered voters. If those had been initiatives, they would have needed almost 26,000 voters to cast votes on the question.

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