ST. THOMAS — In an attempt to reach a settlement with federal civil rights authorities, the Board of Elections decided to eliminate the Guy Benjamin School as a polling site for St. John. For the past few months elections officials have proposed using the former Coral Bay school as an early voting center leading up to the November General Election.
Joint Elections Board Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. convened an emergency meeting to share copies of a proposed settlement calling for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of the enforcement action undertaken by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division an inspection was conducted of all 31 VI polling places.
Deficiencies cited at Benjamin School included problems with the handles at the school’s entry gate. Inspectors also called for installation of a three-and-a-half foot long ramp ramp to accommodate voters using walkers and wheelchairs.
A lack of accessible door handles was also cited at the Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay. Inspectors pointed to a lack of space, allowing vans transporting the disabled to park near the polling place.
Solicitor General Pamela Tepper passed along a copy of a June 3 letter written by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Virgin Islands Civil Chief Joycelyn Hewlett. Despite assurances from elections officials that ADA compliance was reached, Hewlett said a follow up inspection proved otherwise.
“The Department reviewed the accessibility of 29 of the Virgin Islands’ polling places during that election, and concluded that many of the remedies were not implemented. In its October 14, 2014 Letter of Findings … , the Department concluded that most of the Virgin Islands’ polling places were inaccessible to person with disabilities.”
Sprauve School’s poll also needed proper signage, a deficiency repeated for several polls. Elections officials, meeting on June 23, called those problems they could address. But they complained that other problems were the responsibility of the Department of Education.
Many of the territory’s public schools are used by the Election Systems of the VI for balloting.
Board members decided to keep Sprauve School as the island’s primary polling place but said Benjamin School would not be used.
Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes told board members that officials were still looking for an eastern St. John location where voting could take place. Fawkes said she visited the Calabash Boom Housing Community June 22 to see if it would make a suitable replacement for the former Benjamin School.
Early voting was first instituted in 2014 and it proved popular with essential service workers, the elderly and disabled across the territory. St. John offered the option in that election cycle, but accessibility and other problems with the Elections Systems office near the Cruz Bay traffic circle curtailed the time voters could take advantage of early voting.
Actions taken in 2015 led to the relocation of the old St. John elections office to the Marketplace, which was chosen for its accessibility features. Calabash Boom Community Center might help provide an ADA accessible site for early voting in 2016 but as of June, no final decision had been made, Fawkes said.