A group of scholars knowledgeable in politics and history discussed the background of how the Virgin Islands won the right to vote during a forum hosted by the Election System of the Virgin Islands at the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park on St. Croix Tuesday.
John Abramson, former Elections supervisor, moderated the hour-long forum — “From Jackson to Evans: The Fight for Representation and Universal Suffrage.” Abramson asked questions leading guests to ideas for changes in future elections.
The panelists were Malik Sekou, professor and chairman of the History Department at the University of the Virgin Islands; Ophelia “Nemmy” Williams-Jackson, from the V.I. Education Department; Norman Jn Baptiste, former V.I. senator; Shalima Edwards, former Senate candidate, civil rights and social activist; and Caroline Fawkes, current Elections supervisor, who filled in at the beginning.
Participants first talked about suffrage for Virgin Islanders before the 1954 Revised Organic Act, which is essentially the territory’s constitution. Jn Baptist identified suffrage as a “system where no one is left out” due to gender, land ownership, etc.
In 1906, under the government of Denmark, only male property owners with unblemished reputations could vote — only about 10 percent of the population. After the United States purchased the territory in 1917, the law held until 1936, when all Virgin Islands men were allowed to vote. Sekou said D. Hamilton Jackson, who helped negotiate the sale between Denmark and the U.S., advocated for the vote, along with others. In 1938, women were granted the vote, mainly through the activism of female teachers.
“If you’re going to ask (for the vote), ask for me. You discriminated against me,” Williams-Jackson said about Jackson because the advocates didn’t stand up for women.
The panel agreed that the first step towards suffrage was the 1954 Revised Organic Act.
By the end of the first discussion, panelists agreed with Abramson that Virgin Islanders still do not have suffrage — they cannot vote for U.S. president.
The participants were next asked about the role of the media in elections. Williams-Jackson said they should educate residents so they can make “an intelligent decision.” Edwards agreed the media’s duty is to educate voters. Jn Baptist said talk radio shows were “a free for all” without leaders to direct the discussion and print media promoted “plantocracy.” He did not explain or define the term.
They all agreed schools and the media should do a better job of educating voters about elections and government in general.
Sekou, with a grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands supported by the National Endowment of the Humanities, said he added important government documents that can be found online. The (Simplified) Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, co-written with Paul Leary and Patricia Welcome, can be accessed by anyone. The document was produced in 2021.
Currently, there are seven senators each from St. Thomas and St. Croix and one from St. John. Abramson asked if the number of Senate seats for each district is fair and whether or not St. Thomas has an advantage. There was no agreement, nor did they agree if there should be more at-large seats.