Court Blocks New Voter Registrations Before Nov. 20 Runoff Election

Attorney General Claude Earl Walker (File photo)
Attorney General Claude Earl Walker (File photo)

V.I. Superior Court Judge Denise Francois has granted a temporary restraining order “enjoining, restraining and prohibiting Defendant Arturo Watlington, in his capacity as chairman of the Board of Elections and the Virgin Islands Board of Elections” from allowing voter registration in the St. Thomas-St. John district ahead of next week’s runoff election for governor and lieutenant governor, the V.I. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the fact that one district planned to register voters while the other did not appears to fly in the face of the intent, if not the explicit wording, of a 2016 V.I. law unifying former district elections boards into a single board.

In the Nov. 6 general election, Democratic Party challenger Albert Bryan received more votes than the incumbent, independent Kenneth Mapp, but neither received 50 percent of the vote in the seven-canddiate race, leading to a runoff between the two top vote getters Nov. 20. Early voting starts Nov. 17.

The Board of Elections was divided on whether to resume voter registration, but at a meeting last Friday the bard announced registration would resume. Over the weekend, V.I. Attorney General Claude Walker issued an advisory opinion that V.I. election laws prohibit voter registration 30 days before or five days after a general election. Walker’s legal opinion said the runoff is a continuation of the general election so registration may not resume until five days after the Nov. 20 runoff.

“Only those individuals who were qualified to vote for the November 6th election are eligible to vote in the November 20th run-off election,” Walker said in his opinion. The “scheduled run-off election is a continuation of the general election that was held on November 6th and, pursuant to V.I.C. § 94(c), the Board must not register new voters between today and five days after the run-off election occurs.”

Arturo Watlington Sr.
Arturo Watlington Sr.

Watlington decided to continue with voter registration on St. Thomas and St. John anyway, until a court actually ruled on the question, while St. Croix members determined to comply with Walker’s opinion.

Walker then requested the temporary restraining order.

In her ruling granting the TRO, Francois said “Virgin Islands law is clear on the time period during which new electors or voters may be registered” and determined the government had a strong likelihood of prevailing in court. Her TRO prohibits registering more voters before the election and also prohibits Watlington or election officials from allowing anyone to vote who registered after the Nov. 6 general election.

“This is a victory for common sense. We are very pleased with the distinguished judge’s decision,” Walker said of the ruling. “This is a U.S .jurisdiction and so we are governed by laws and not by men. It is a beautiful example of American democracy.”

This same issue arose in the 2014 election. That year, Supervisor of Elections Caroline Fawkes initially allowed registration between the general election and subsequent runoff election for governor. But in 2014, the Joint Board of Elections voted to disallow residents who only registered after the general election from participating in the runoff, based on the same passages in V.I. law cited by Walker this week.

At the time, Democratic Party candidate Donna Christensen initially wanted voters registered but took no court action.

Donna Christensen takes part in a 2016 Democratic rally. (File photo)
Donna Christensen takes part in a 2016 Democratic rally. (File photo)

“What I remember from 2014 is there was a lot of confusion over whether they could register and if they registered, whether they could vote,” Christensen said Wednesday.

Speaking before news of the TRO was public, Christensen was critical of Watlington’s decision to proceed despite Walker’s opinion.

“In my personal opinion people should be able to register and vote. But if you ask the attorney general for an opinion and he gives you an opinion, I think you are bound by that opinion,” Christensen said Wednesday.

“If you think it is wrong, go to court … don’t take it into your own hands and decide not to follow what the attorney general said,” she continued.

She also said, given the confusion over the same issue in 2014 and again this month, that the question will be resolved once and for all.

That registration was allowed on St. Thomas but not St. Croix appears to fly in the face of a new law unifying the two former district elections boards into one unified board. Several members of the former district boards fought tooth and nail against the unification, taking it to Superior Court, to U.S. District Court and eventually the V.I. Supreme Court, losing all the way.

The purpose of the law, according to its sponsor, Sen. Kenneth Gittens, was at least in part to prevent the chaos and lawsuits caused by different procedures in each district in past elections.

“We have three separate policies, apparently, to adhere to,” “One in the St. Croix district, one in the St. Thomas/St. John district and then you have the joint board decision. So which is it going to be? We’re one Virgin Islands. We need to unify this process and get it done,” Gittens said when the Senate first passed his bill to unify the board.

But when finally ordered by the V.I. Supreme Court to comply with a V.I. Superior Court order to comply with the law, the unified board’s first action was to create district “committees” mimicking the functions the legislation to unify the boards had intended to eliminate.