Unified Board’s First Election Exposes Continuing Rifts

Arturo Watlington Sr.
Arturo Watlington Sr. (File photo)

The 2018 election season was the first time that the Virgin Islands Election Board had to execute the elections as one unit, but key players are at odds on whether it passed or failed what was essentially its first road test.

Before then-Sen. Kenneth Gittens got a bill in 2016 creating one Election Board for the territory, the board was split into districts – St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix – and also convened as a territorial board. Gittens’ bill eliminated the technical divisions, creating a single board.

Gittens said he was pleased that the unified Election Board and the Election System were able to execute what was essentially five elections – the primaries, the general election, the runoff and two early voting periods.

“The one-board concept, in my opinion, has proven that it can work,” said Gittens. “The [Election System] staff should never be taken back to having to take directions from three different entities, that being the St. Croix board, the St. Thomas-St. John board and the territorial board.”

But on top of the usual rocky board meetings, the runoff election exposed persisting conflicts among board members that many hoped the one-board concept would alleviate. On the issue of allowing new voter registrations right before the runoff, St. Thomas-St. John members and the St. Croix members went their separate ways. According to Election Board Chairman Arturo Watlington, the board voted on July 12 to open up registration for the runoff election, but the St. Croix contingent “got cold feet” on Nov. 9, he said.

“They tried to change it during the meeting, and they went to the attorney general to take the rest of the board to court,” said Watlington.

When the St. Thomas-St. John board members allowed registration in their district, Attorney General Claude Walker filed suit with the V.I. Superior Court and Judge Denise Francois granted a temporary restraining order “enjoining, restraining and prohibiting Watlington and the board from allowing new voter registrations.”

Watlington obeyed the court order, de-registering some 20 new voters who registered between the general election and the runoff.

Board member Raymond Williams offered a different version of the story.

According to Williams, there was no motion nor agreement made to allow pre-runoff registration. Williams moved during the Nov. 9 meeting to suspend the registration of new voters but Watlington ruled the motion out of order. Williams said Watlington interpreted the July vote he referenced in a way that suited him.

“In fact, member Lisa Moorhead, who had made that motion, read into the record what the motion literally said, but he still refused to accept as being what the motion read, so I challenged the chair and his ruling, at which time, he basically muted the speaker so we could not communicate, and then he came back after and started to insist that that’s the motion.”

“The meeting became chaotic, at which time he turned off the videoconferencing feed, so the meeting was unable to continue,” added Williams.

The disruptions that occurred in that Nov. 9 meeting are a norm for the Election Board. According to Williams, the friction between individual board members still exists regardless of the fact that they were now part of a single unit.

“It’s about the personalities,” said Williams. “And the fact that we are governed by rules and not by an individual, and an individual cannot unilaterally make a decision that represents the entire organization.”

Gittens disagreed.

“Yes, you still have the personalities, but again, we were able to carry out five elections rather smoothly, I would say,” said Gittens.

“Again if we only put those policies and procedures in place, whereas individuals with their stronger personalities would not be able to just take over with their loud voices and boisterous behavior, if they had an established set of policies and procedures go by, they would just have to abide by that,” Gittens said.

According to Gittens, in addition to a bigger space for the Election System, the Election Board needs to have written policies and procedures that will dictate how the board deals with any given situation.

“The V.I. Code only sets the framework, to operate within this perimeter,” Gittens said. “Your day-to-day guidelines will come through policies and procedures. The absence of a written policies and procedures being in place would continue to create those hurdles that we’ve seen.”

Williams was not so sure written policies and procedures would be enough, saying he had a problem with the very concept of a single election board. For instance, the unified board has to certify the entire election regardless of district as one body, but Williams said some St. Croix members were uncomfortable with how the St. Thomas-St. John side executed their end, and may end up not signing the certification.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to cross that bridge,” said Williams. “That is an issue, that is a problem. How do you resolve that, I couldn’t answer that … but if we can’t uphold what we swore to do, then that’s a damn disgrace.”

After Friday’s meeting, the V.I. Board of Elections certified the Nov. 6 general election and finished counting absentee ballots for the Nov. 20 runoff. In both cases, the winners have not changed.

With the the mail-in absentees, the total votes cast during the runoff was 23,166 out of a total 51,095 voters, or approximately 45 percent of those registered. According the final results, Gov.-elect Albert Bryan, Jr. received 12,677 votes, while outgoing Gov. Kenneth Mapp received 10,288.

While the runoff wasn’t certified Friday, the Nov. 6th general election was. Signing off were board members: Arturo Watlington, Jr., Raymond Williams, Alecia Wells, Lydia Hendricks, Barbara Jackson-McIntosh, Epiphane Joseph, Lisa Harris-Moorhead, Robert “Max” Schanfarber and Glenn Webster.

Reporter James Gardner contributed to this story.