Open forum: It is Time to Amend the Revised Organic Act

United States of America flag. U.S. Virgin Islands flag (Source file)

Dear Source:

Once again V.I. residents will have a chance to change the course of history and progress on the path to self-determination. The stakes will be greater than the senatorial race in this upcoming general election. For the first time in V.I. history, the electorate will have a say in the adoption of the Revised Organic Act of 1954 (ROA) or portions of it as our constitution. Voters that intend to participate in the election process should expect a referendum question.

It has not yet been clearly articulated by the primary sponsor of the referendum initiative (Bill 33-0292), Senator Myron D. Jackson, how the question of adopting the ROA will appear on the ballot. Moreover, there has hardly been public discourse about Bill 33-0292. During her talk show on Aug. 22, Senator Alicia Barnes did briefly discuss the referendum. My understanding is that in order for a 6th Constitutional Convention to convene and adopt the ROA or portions of it, 50 percent plus one of the residents that actually participate in the referendum must answer ‘yes.’ It wouldn’t be an easy decision unless the voters understand the ramifications involved and are cognizant of the impact on our political destiny.

Some voters will probably avoid answering the question. Period. Ironically, they would have influenced the outcome anyway. Saying no or not answering at all suggests that they want the status quo to remain or simply that they are indifferent to self-governance. What would be the next step towards self-determination if the ROA is not adopted?

On Sunday, Sept. 20, a Blue Ribbon panel, comprised of six individuals and the two senators previously mentioned, discussed the referendum.

This virtual town hall meeting was moderated by Dr. Gwen-Marie Moolanaar, president of the League of Women Voters USVI. She did a superb job and all the panelists eloquently presented their perspectives. Based on the inquiries from the audience, however, it is evident that a massive education campaign must occur by November. Some residents assume that to “adopt” means to plagiarize the ROA and submit to Congress a document that is not created by Virgin Islanders.

If the referendum is successful, it will increase the probability of us ratifying a constitution after five failed attempts. The antiquated document that has been governing us for several decades could be revised and amended. As it’s written, the ROA has provisions about how we elect our representatives. Recall the referendum on amending the electoral system for the Legislature that was held on March 30, 2019? Although the organizers of the reapportionment initiative collected enough signatures for a public vote, low voter turnout resulted in that referendum being invalidated.

Was the reapportionment referendum an exercise in futility? A simple majority of registered voters, roughly 25,872 out of 51,741 was needed to make the special election valid. It appeared that most Virgin Islanders at that moment were satisfied with the present political system. Further, there would have been legal challenges about the constitutionality of having five voting districts instead of two. It’s a fact that the ROA establishes two voting districts and a unicameral Legislature.

Note that all 15 members of the 33rd Legislature represent the entire territory; they unanimously passed Bill 33-0292. Wouldn’t [it] make more sense to elect all of them at-large? Isn’t it the right moment to address the problematic language that exists in the ROA? For example, it requires the incumbent governor to reside at Government House in St. Thomas, which is not always practical.  Amending the ROA could resolve this matter and many other problems that plague the territory.

Be clear that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of our territory. We have the right to create our own constitution but it must be approved by Congress.  Why risk another rejection like what happened to the grossly defective fifth constitutional draft? Besides grammatical errors, the proposed fifth constitution contains language that is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. Like the reapportionment initiative, it was poorly conceived and written according to the personal agenda of a few “elite” Virgin Islanders.

The ROA has been our de facto constitution since 1954. None of the constitutional conventions have produced a document that was ratified by the people. Monies, energy and time have been wasted in the effort to write a constitution that can replace the ROA. Why not revise and amend the ROA so that it reflects our current situation? It would also be an opportunity to insert an impeachment clause and nullify the fifth constitutional draft.

Democracy is the pinnacle of a free society. Therefore, it is hoped that V.I. residents seize the moment and make a change to how we are governed. Whether you embrace the idea of adopting the ROA or reject it, let your voices be heard.  Do you want to eventually ratify a constitution for the USVI and pave the way for us to decide next what political status is best for the territory?

Verdel L. Petersen of St. Croix