The Dec. 24 order from Superior Court Judge Harold Willocks ended the legal battle over Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen’s candidacy and put a final cap on the election of 2014.
Even if you are a strong supporter of Hansen – and a lot of people are, she was the top St. Croix vote-getter in the previous two elections – you have to be at least a little relieved that the whole episode is over. Even by standards of the territory, this was an exhausting and bizarre legal battle that saw Chucky’s legal status bounced onto and off the ballot like a rubber ball. The voters are not well served by such confusion.
But before we get too comfortable, let’s keep one thing in mind. We can’t know what the problem will be when we go to the polls in 2016 and again in 2018, but we can safely assume there will be problems.
Why? Because there always are.
Two paragraphs in Willocks’ 27-page decision point this out, and suggest a possible solution.
"The history of the Virgin Islands Elections System is one that is replete with legal challenges. More often than not, the court finds itself in the position of having to steer the election system of the Virgin Islands into safe harbors that protect the integrity of the election system and intent of the voters. These challenges have gone back to the days of David Hamilton Jackson.
"Rather than the Virgin Islands Legislature updating and revising the Election Code in its entirety, the judicial branch has had to interpret the Election Code when matters have come before it on a piecemeal basis. The matter currently before the court is no different."
When it takes a month to count all the votes, and there’s disagreement about how that count is carried out, when we have to parse words, wondering what the law means when it refers to "candidates" in one section and "persons" in another, we have to wonder why the Legislature doesn’t just say clearly what it means.
It is tempting to think that maybe the lawmakers are being intentionally obtuse, leaving loopholes and wiggle room to exploit. But that sort of cynicism misses the mark. The problem is, the territory’s election laws have been stitched together like a quilt, patched and pieced over the years.
And, like Judge Willocks, we wonder if it isn’t time to scrap the whole thing and write a whole new section covering the entire breadth of the system. Don’t pick at the frayed edges and worn spots of the old law, changing a paragraph here, a sentence there. Figure out how we want our elections to work – the whole thing, candidates and parties and supervisors, eligibility and deadlines and expense reports, finances and write-ins, and create a whole new section of the V.I. Code that says that, clearly and in words that don’t require lawyers with dictionaries to interpret.
This then raises the question, who will do the rewrite?
The Joint Board of Election? As Rupert Ross (by the way, one of the more conscientious, even tempered and polite public servants we’ve ever met) pointed out when he resigned from the St. Croix District Board of Elections, the system is overcome with political agendas and dysfunction.
But we didn’t need him to tell us that. All we had to do was see that the chairman of the St. Croix board was one of Hansen’s primary legal foes in the court battle to know that Elections had given up the illusion that it would run an unbiased system.
So maybe the Legislature? There’s a tendency to mistrust politicians with the job of writing the rules by which they get elected. It seems an obvious conflict of interest, since they directly benefit from elections – in the sense that that’s how they got their current jobs.
But they are, in fact, the territory’s lawmakers. If we didn’t trust them with writing important legislation, why are they in office in the first place?
There is a need for caution, a need for the public to keep an eye on the process. But there’s no need to push past caution into cynicism and flat out mistrust.
It’s not an easy task we’re calling for. We know the path forward is a minefield. Maybe it’s something the new governor can put on his agenda, a thorough revamping of the election laws of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Because it’s not enough that, in a democracy, an election system protects the sanctity of the vote. It most also be perceived to do so, must be patently fair. Otherwise it creates mistrust, sews the seeds of dissension, and results in an endless parade of divisive lawsuits.
Which is what we have now.