During testimony given before a Senate committee on Wednesday, the head of the Election Systems of the Virgin Islands said a second ballot may appear in time for the November General Election. Election Systems Supervisor Caroline Fawkes raised the possibility while speaking about an initiative for senate reapportionment promoted by local civic group.
The initiative, sponsored by St. Croix Government Retirees, Inc., calls for the establishment of five voting districts in the V.I., replacing the existing two. The measure, if adopted by voters, would also assign candidates for the Legislature to those districts, where voters would choose some to serve at-large and others to serve as district representatives.
St. Croix Government Retirees, Inc. member Mary Moorhead and initiative consultant Mario Moorhead told officials meeting on St. John Wednesday night they hope reapportionment will increase accountability.
“This petition for initiative seeks to restore the republican form of government to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands by way of reapportionment, establishing a reapportion structure that categorically assigns responsibility to every senator, for which they will be accountable,” Mary Moorhead said.
Proponents claim increasing the number of at-large senators and assigning others to districts will help ensure that those lawmakers faithfully serve the people who voted for them. The proposal is modeled after a system that existed in the territory from the mid 1950s until 1966, Mario Moorhead explained.
St. Croix Government Retirees, Inc. was registered as a local advocacy group in 2013 to promote a sustainable government pension system.
In her testimony Wednesday, Fawkes described the steps taken by the group to circulate petitions and gather enough signatures for the measure to be put before the voters. Because of the timeliness of the group’s submission, she said, a ballot can be readied.
What’s needed now is lawmakers’ approval, Fawkes said. She added that a similar petition has already made its way through the qualification process from a group called Government Retirees United for Fairness, Inc.
“The Election System is faced with the possibility that both initiatives may appear on the ballot in the November General Election,” Fawkes said. “This is the titling board’s second initiative, therefore we have already created formal initiative petition sheets from the Government Retirees United for Fairness, Inc.’s petition, which was in early 2017.”
Fawkes said she has discussed the best approach with Attorney General Claude Walker.
If the Legislature gives the go-ahead, and because the November ballots have already been printed, separate ballots introducing the reapportionment question would be created, Fawkes said. Voters using the absentee ballot method could either email, snail mail, or call in their preference.
Fawkes and the Moorheads were among several people scheduled to testify on the measure. Some testifiers did not appear in the Cruz Bay Legislative Annex. But University of the Virgin Islands mathematics professor Adam Parr did, representing UVI President David Hall.
Parr said he examined the proposal from the standpoint of a scholar. “Although it is not my primary field of research, I have been teaching and studying the theory of voting for about 30 years,” he said.
The mathematician added cautious words regarding any possible outcome. According to his analysis, the difference to come from a successful ballot initiative and subsequent changes in the law would be greater than the definition about who votes for whom.
“Changing your voting system always means trading one set of problems for a new set of problems. The goal, therefore, is to improve the system by finding a better, not best, system,” Parr said.
When lawmakers attending the hearing had a chance to weigh in, they sought clarification on some of the points raised during the presentations.
Sens. Tregenza Roach and Positive T.A. Nelson asked proponents how they thought creating new districts and assigning lawmakers would help improve the pension system.
“How does reapportionment make a senator more powerful?” Nelson asked.
Roach asked whether the reapportionment of voting districts would require changes in the structure of the Legislature. He also asked Fawkes when the measure would be enacted.
“2020, an off year, to do all the procedures and do all the laws that would have to be changed,” she said.
Sen. Dwayne deGraff asked how voters on Water Island would be apportioned, since Water Island officially became the fourth U.S. Virgin Island in 1996.
Sen. Janette Millin Young commended the retirees group for having the tenacity to see their measure through.
“I attempted to deal with this issue — how we elect senators — and it never made it to the floor,” Millin Young said. “I don’t agree with everything, but we are not here to agree with every matter. Dr. Parr mentioned something I do agree with, and that is that no system is going to make everyone happy. But certainly people are extremely unhappy with what’s going on.”
But then, Millin Young tossed in a doubt.
“You believe that by changing the way we elect senators, we will have a different brand of leader. That’s still a question mark,” she said.
The Wednesday night hearing was the first of three public forums where the reapportionment initiative is to be discussed. The St. Thomas hearing will take place on Oct. 15; the St. Croix hearing will take place on Oct. 16.