Voter Registration Concerns Point to Holes in V.I. Law

Without a quorum, Board of Elections members go over voter registration issues at a meeting last week.
Without a quorum, Board of Elections members go over voter registration issues at a meeting last week.

A section of the V.I. Code with two conflicting definitions of “election” sparked debate last week between V.I. Elections Board members who questioned whether residents could register to vote in the event of a gubernatorial runoff.

While the board didn’t have the quorum it needed for a formal meeting at its Wednesday teleconferenced meeting, an informal discussion continued for hours, with members wondering if they should ask Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes to seek a legal opinion on the matter. That opened another can of worms after others questioned whether the current attorney general could settle the matter “independently,” since his boss is running for re-election.

At issue was a section of the code that defines a runoff as “an election” that’s triggered when no one candidate wins a majority of votes cast, and, later defines “election” as any general or primary, with no mention of the word “runoff.”

Asked what happened in the last gubernatorial election when there was a runoff, board chairman Arturo Watlington, Jr. responded, “controversy.” Some residents were allowed to register, and some were not, he added. With the Nov. 6 general election looming, board members agreed that the issue had to be looked into.

“It’s an issue,” Watlington said. “Election doesn’t mean runoff.”

St. Croix member Lisa Harris Moorhead argued that it wouldn’t be fair to consider the runoff as a separate election, but rather, the board should view it as an extension of the general.

“Otherwise, I as a candidate can now find 200 people that didn’t take part in the general who could now vote my way,” she said. While other board members said they didn’t see a problem with that, most agreed that Fawkes should have an attorney weigh in. Watlington, however, went a step further and added that senators should see the concern as a need for proper election reform, which he said means fixing loopholes in the law.

“This is actually what election reform means,” he said. “All anyone wants to think about is personal legislation, like forming a single board (of Elections) because they don’t want too many people in charge. But once you start to centralize power, you create more problems, and then you have to rely on them to fix it again.”

Without a quorum, there wasn’t a motion or vote, and no formal consensus on how the issue would be addressed. If a runoff occurs, however, registration could be reopen on Nov. 11, with the runoff scheduled for Nov. 20.