Democracy during a pandemic is not easy, the USVI Board of Elections is finding.
The board has met every week in April trying to make the efforts of public office seekers and voters conform with the needs of social distancing and constant disinfecting.
And then there is, as Caroline Fawkes, supervisor of the election system, keeps emphasizing, the safety of staff and poll workers to consider.
On Tuesday, the board heard from Commissioner of Health Justa Encarnacion and territorial epidemiologist Esther Ellis, who said the COVID-19 outbreak in the territory might “just be beginning.”
Encarnacion told the board in the meeting teleconferenced through Microsoft Teams software that she was aware of the challenges the board faced but said the safety of residents should be put first. She said the board might want to consider putting a station outside the polling places where residents who show up without masks could get one.
She touched on the debate the board was having concerning whether aspiring candidates can have petitions electronically signed. Inherent in that process is the disenfranchising of aspirants who did not have access to scanners or printers.
Fawkes sent out a press release on Friday saying she approved of electronic circulation of nomination petitions and papers effective that day.
Board member Harriet Mercer expressed concern about that approval and sent a letter to Fawkes and the media. She wrote that electronic submittals were contrary to current law and questioned whether Fawkes had the right to take such action without the board’s approval.
During the meeting Fawkes quoted the V.I. Code, which, she said, gave her the power to make such decisions during states of emergency.
Another problem that arose was the inability of unregistered voters to register. In normal times residents can register to vote at their island’s Board of Elections office. However, those offices now are closed to the public and only open for a few hours on certain days for those who wish to be candidates in the upcoming primary to pick up the necessary papers.
Two board members, Atanya Springette and Lydia Hendricks, set up appointments and registered residents as voters last weekend.
Raymond Williams, chairman of the board, said those registrations were illegal. He said any registration effort had to be “sanctioned” by the full board before it could take place.
In her news release last week, Fawkes attached a flyer offering suggestions for those seeking to gather signatures electronically.
The suggestions for potential candidates were:
– Request voters who want to sign your nominations petitions and papers contact you via phone and/or email,
– Email the nomination petitions or papers form to the requested signer,
– Have the voter print the petitions or papers form, complete and sign, or
– Scan/Email: Signer emails the nomination petitions and papers form back to the aspirant. (Submittal of extra petitions and papers signature forms are acceptable.)
Manual signatures will be accepted, however social distancing is encouraged.
Those running affiliated with a party need 25 signatures of registered voters. Signatures can be verified on the Elections System website.
Nomination petitions and papers must be submitted by May 12 for the Aug. 1 primary.
Encarnacion said that if pens are used anywhere in the process, the person who uses the pen should keep it.
Ellis said if a piece of paper is contaminated by the virus it could stay contaminated from nine to 24 hours.