While the turnout wasn’t large, the passion was evident Wednesday during the St. Croix District Board of Elections’s forum to elicit public comments on the territory’s voting system.
Only eight people signed up to offer testimony at the forum held in St. Gerard’s Hall at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Frederiksted. But if it were up to them, it would have been a landslide for having paper ballots either augment or replace the current machine-only vote counting system.
It’s not that he doesn’t trust the system, resident Gustin James told the board members present. It’s just that the system provides no way to witness the actual casting or counting of the ballots.
James, who lived briefly in Texas, related a saying from that state that he said applies: "Trust your neighbor, but brand your cattle."
James said he has been insecure voting since the current system was adopted—a system, he said, "that does not provide an eyewitness."
He suggested a system that allowed voters to enter their votes on a machine; the machine would then print out a paper version of the ballot. Once the voter confirmed the paper ballot showed his intentions, it would publicly be placed in a ballot box.
"You could see the paper ballots drop into the box," he said.
Switching to any form of paper ballots would require a change in the V.I. Code, and a system such as James proposed has been estimated to cost as much as $10 million.
But James said such figures were exaggerated. Individual machines shouldn’t cost as much as $10,000 a piece, he said, but perhaps as little as $1,000.
Forum attendee Mary Moorhead, who also supported using paper ballots, worried that the board had not left enough time to consider the issue and proposed legislation that could be enacted by the V.I. Senate before the start of the new election cycle.
Attendee Scott Ligurd was one of the voters who were upset last November to learn that the option of using a paper ballot was not going to be allowed.
"The next voting season I should be allowed to vote the way I want to vote," he said.
"I’m pleading with you to let me use the paper ballot," said forum attendee Robert James, adding his voice to the chorus.
While paper ballots were the major concern, they weren’t the only issue raised by speakers.
Zulma Turner, the outreach coordinator for the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, praised Elections Supervisor John Abrahamson for his efforts to make voting accessible to all voters, regardless of their disabilities.
While some speakers used their allotted time to ask questions of the board rather than make statements, chairman Rupert Ross said the forum was not convened to engage in a debate.
Instead, he said, the board is trying to learn the public’s interest. Then it will consider it and make recommendations to the territory-wide board of elections meeting, probably in April. If the full board decides to seek changes in the laws regulating elections, it will propose them to the Senate, which will have to approve any changes.
After the forum Ross said he had hoped for a bigger turnout but noted there was another session to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Great Hall of the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix campus.
A third session is tentatively slated for Christiansted in the next week to 10 days, but a site has not yet been determined.