Increasing voter confidence is on the docket for the V.I. Legislature as senators and other government officials engaged with U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois during his “Faith in Elections Project” tour in the territory Tuesday.
Davis visited both St. Thomas and St. Croix for his tour where he strives to increase voter assurance through education, engagement, and reform. He is the ranking member of the Elections Assistance Commission Committee and had several meetings and engagements with V.I. senators, V.I. Supervisor of Elections Caroline F. Fawkes, and Delegate to Congress Stacy Plaskett.
Sens. Alma Francis-Heyliger and Donna Frett-Gregory met with Davis at the Legislature Building to discuss proficiencies and challenges that the territory’s election system is faced with. Afterward, Davis met with Fawkes to do a tour of the election office on St. Croix.
“We have recognized that there is some need for election reform in the Virgin Islands,” said Frett-Gregory.
Rodney said he wanted to stress “what’s being done right” in elections and in the territory, which means a more streamlined and modern voter identification system, and an efficient way for counting votes and announcing results.
“The local election officials know how to run elections,” he said, adding that one benefit of national elections allows state governments to hold responsibility for election systems. However, he added that the tour is a part of ensuring those systems are accountable.
Though there were positive things discussed during the tour, during post-interviews with Francis-Heyliger and Fawkes, Francis-Heyliger said that some of the challenges facing the territory deal with public trust, transparency, accessibility, and voter education. Fawkes added that some challenges surround the use of absentee ballots, voter registration, and low voter participation, particularly for young adults aged 18-24.
“I currently have a piece of legislation, bill number 34-0149, that has to do with opening up a little bit more of public access to information to assist with transparency. I also put in 34-0291, and that one has to do with early voting,” said Francis-Heyliger. The senator also proposed bill 34-0414, which targets online voter registration, and bill 34-0412, which approaches absentee ballots in a digitized manner.
“We are dealing with a situation where we’re now in modern day time, and a lot of the laws and the books are very old and antiquated,” said Francis-Heyliger. “For example, one of the laws I’m trying to update was written from February 20, 1963.”
One of the solutions the territory is currently working on are the requirements for community members to be able to register for absentee ballots. During the last election season, voters were provided with an extended early voting period and were able to register for absentee ballots more easily due to the presence of COVID-19. However, normally, one is not able to obtain an absentee ballot unless there is an existing condition preventing the individual from voting in person.
“So you’ll have no-reason absentees. That was COVID related and COVID will be here for 2022, so we’re trying to be proactive, and we’re going to need some of these same laws in place. We’re going to do it,” said Fawkes.
Fawkes briefed Davis on the history of the Virgin Islands, the elections system, and federal funds used for the elections system in the territory. She mentioned that during the tour, Davis admired that the territory allows for employees to take time off from work to vote and that community members have receive a voter identification card when registering to vote, which is not required for citizens in many of the states.
“We’re one of the states and territories that has election day as a holiday,” Fawkes said. “If you make it a holiday you give more people the opportunity [to vote].”
More benefits of the territory’s election system include early voting and the Election Systems & Software company’s DS200 and Express Vote machines. In the future, there is expected to be a chance for online voter registration.
“We have to open our minds to how we can get voters to come out. Whether it be via electronic process or being able to email ballots,” said Frett-Gregory.
All officials concurred that though there have been strides in the election system, the territory is in need of some reform.
“Election reform is always important. I think people want to have a sense of security and a sense of transparency when it comes to casting their vote,” said Francis-Heyliger. She added that “Voter turnout has to do with election reform … taking the time out not only as representatives but also the Board of Elections, the elections system, really reaching out to the public and educating on the changes to show them that there is transparency, that the process is safe.”
Other topics of discussion amongst officials and Davis included voting for the President, the non-voting status of the V.I. delegate to Congress, and the Employer Participation in Repayment Act.