Sept. 23, 2003 – One of the plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit alleging that certain segments of the V.I. electorate are disenfranchised by a voting system that dilutes the chances for more ethnic diversity says he's sorry debate over the matter has led some people to accuse him of racism.
Robert Hoffman, one of two plaintiffs who filed the suit in District Court on St. Croix in August, said his intention is to force the government to replace the current at-large election of senators with district seats. One senator would be elected from each district, and only the persons residing in a given district would be eligible to vote for that district's representative.
Among those who see merit in Hoffman's viewpoint is the territory's top election official — who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. John Abramson Jr., supervisor of elections, says replacing the at-large system would increase the accountability of politicians to the voters who put them in office.
But Abramson also accused some of the plaintiffs of race baiting and warned that framing the argument in terms of black, white and Hispanic conflict is bound to backfire. "I have no problem with Hoffman pursuing subdistricting," he said. "If he wants subdistricting, fine. Don't use race as an issue."
In a recent interview, Abramson said: "Our voters are color blind. Race has never been an issue. There was a time when there were five Caucasians in the Legislature, and that's not me talking; that's history. Hispanic votes alone, Caucasians cannot win with just Caucasian votes alone. Even if they change it, they still need representation from other voters."
When the lawsuit was first filed earlier this year, the argument for reforming the voting system went something like this: Because there are more black voters in the Virgin Islands than those who are white or Hispanic, voters from the smaller ethnic groups have less chance of imposing their political will, since their votes are diluted in an-at large system that lumps all votes together then divvies them up among the top candidates. Because almost all of those candidates also are neither white nor Hispanic, the argument went, it is almost impossible for whites or Hispanics to get voted into office.
"When I filed, I didn't really know what I was doing," Hoffman said. "The only legal way to challenge the current system is to question whether the system is in violation of federal law. We realized we couldn't change the districting by referendum — because the senators ignore them. We couldn't change the districting by talking to the senators — because they don't represent us."
With the help of St. Croix attorney Andrew Simpson, the language of the lawsuit was revised. It now reads: "The existing at-large method of electing senators to [the] Virgin Islands Legislature has the result and effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color or membership in a language minority" in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1973 and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution..
The revised lawsuit, filed Aug. 26, also alleges that the at-large system is being deliberately maintained in order to continue discrimination against the plaintiffs.
Hoffman points out that district-oriented voting systems are widely used in the Caribbean. And in those locales, he said, "you have a party system that tends to be stronger."
He noted that 80 percent of registered V.I. voters have allied themselves with the Democratic Party. Districting, he said, still would give "more punch to the party system, which is something we need here, because it makes the other parties more responsible."
The other political parties in the territory are the Republicans and the Independent Citizens Movement.
Hoffman acknowledged that Hispanics do not represent one particular race, but he said they do represent a recognized ethnic group which has been party to previous court cases involving discrimination. In some cases, he said, Hispanics have been granted rights by the court based on arguments demonstrating discrimination.
Efforts to contact the Hispanic plaintiffs named in the lawsuit proved difficult. Nellie Rivera, once a leader of the group Hispanos Unidos, declined to return several phone calls asking the reasons for her support of the action. It has been less than a month since the case was refiled in District Court. Since then, Rivera and former Sen. Miguel Camacho, until recently Hispanos Unidos president, have left their leadership posts within the organization.
The group's acting interim president, Dr. Velma Colon, declined comment, saying to do so prematurely would be "putting my foot in my mouth."
"The members of the board are united and agreed to participate in the lawsuit," Colon said recently. As for Rivera and Camacho quitting the group, "I cannot tell you the details," she said.
Hispanos Unidos is described by some members of the St. Croix Hispanic community as an established group of about 150 dues-paying members. But former Sen. Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal, who publicly celebrates her Hispanic allegiance every Three Kings Day, questioned whether Hispanos Unidos reflects the broad views of their community.
Simpson said it's unlikely that Hispanos Unidos represents a point of view other than that of its membership. In the papers filed with the court, the group is described as "a non-profit organization formed to represent the political interests of Hispanics on St. Croix."
What's been filed is not a class-action suit. Simpson said whether most Hispanics or most whites on St. Croix, or those elsewhere in the Virgin Islands, feel that they, too, have been disenfranchised by the at-large voting system is "not relevant to the lawsuit."
"I think this is a very meritorius lawsuit, and I don't think I have to have every particular sector of a particular community involved as part of proving my case," he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
The lawsuit is moving through the pre-trial process. "The defendants' answers are due right now," Simpson said. "We're waiting to receive their answers, then we will go into the discovery phase. That's where we'll be until the end of the year. After that, we'll be in the expert witness phase."
He said he hopes to get to trial by next April. With 2004 an election year in the Virgin Islands, there will be paperwork deadlines starting in June for candidates who aspire to be elected to office in the fall. And if there are to be substantive changes in the election system, they need to be in place by then.

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