Stakeholders in the April 8 special election listen to the debate at an emergency meeting of the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections. Officials asked what would happen if they certified the balloting results. Janelle Sarauw, winner of the April 8 race is pictured, right.
ST. THOMAS — Ten days after voters chose to fill a vacant seat in the 32nd Legislature, the St. Thomas-St. John Board of Elections said they’re not sure what to do next. Their uncertainty was expressed at an emergency board meeting held April 18.
By law, the vote must be certified ten days after the official count is completed. As of Tuesday, April 18, the count of absentee ballots was still under way. Elections board Chairman Arturo Watlington called in the board’s private attorney for an emergency meeting the same day.
Board members sought guidance as they found themselves facing a dilemma. The next step in the special election is to certify the results. But that step was already taken on Nov. 22 for a Senate candidate in the Nov. 8 General Election.
“There’s no authority for this board to certify eight people for seven district seats,” Watlington said. That could only change if the elections board was granted the power to decertify an already certified candidate, he said.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp declared a special election Feb. 7 after a federal court ruled in a dispute involving Kevin Rodriquez, the unseated winner in the district race for the 32nd Legislature.
Attorney Julita de Leon agreed with district elections officials. “The issue cannot be decided by the board. It could be decided by the Legislature, it could be decided by the court,” the attorney said. “The board only has the power the Legislature has granted it,” she said.
De Leon said Rodriquez should either be decertified or seated, neither of which the board has authority to do.
The talk then turned to the pending certification of the April 8 special election results. The winner of that race is UVI Political Science instructor Janelle Sarauw. When asked directly if the board should certify Sarauw’s victory in the special, the board’s lawyer hesitated.
“I cannot give you my opinion in public,” she said.
The debate among board members Alecia Wells, Lydia Hendricks, Maurice Donovan, Carla Joseph and Ivy Moses tackled the issue from several angles. Sarauw and special election candidate Alma Francis Heyliger watched from the spectator seats at the back of the conference room, along with Legislature Executive Director Iver Stridiron.
Donovan criticized lawmakers, saying they lacked the courage to act. But Joseph said the Legislature did act, by appropriating $90,000 to conduct the April 8 ballot and three days of early voting on March 29, 30 and April 1.
By law, once a Legislative session is convened, lawmakers have the authority to decide the status of its members, include or exclude them. As the discussion moved into that area, Stridiron said quietly from the back of the room, “He’s not a member.”
Moses, St. John’s representative on the elections board expressed frustration, along with a few colorful words. “Right now, I really feel I am being made an ass. You tell me we had a primary election, a general election, a special election and now we’re saying we don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” Moses said.
“These things were supposed to be worked up before we got here. This is a waste of everybody’s time. A waste of taxpayer’s money, a waste of all the candidates time, energy and effort. Totally ridiculous.”
Wells said she did not believe that she, as a member of the elections board, had done anything wrong. But in a calmer moment, Moses asked what can be done.
“I feel we need to complete our process,” the chairman said. Two hours later, the board got back to work on the tally. Board members and elections staff processed ballots through the early evening.
After the meeting, officials said the board has until April 28 to complete the certification process. If no action is taken by that time, board members will have to explain why they failed to act.
The chairman also predicted the controversy over the final Senate seat would endure through Summer.
Still outstanding is a federal appeal filed by Rodriquez in March where the candidate asked the U.S. Appeals Court for the 3rd Circuit to intervene. The three judge appellate court rejected a request by the senator-elect to stop the April 8 ballot, but agreed to hear his case on an expedited calendar. Arguments are expected to be heard when the circuit judges visit St. Croix on May 1 and May 2.
Watlington declined to speculate about what that round of legal argument may bring. “I don’t want to anticipate what the 3rd Circuit is going to do. That might be one of the issues the 3rd Circuit has to deal with,” the board chairman said.