The House of Representatives has amended a Senate bill which would allow registered voters stranded off-island due to the COVID-19 pandemic to cast ballots in the November 3rd general elections.
The House has removed a provision in the Senate bill concerning Emergency Authority for the Chief Election Officer. The provision states that if a declared national or local emergency makes compliance with this title impossible or unreasonable, the Chief Election Officer is authorized to immediately prepare procedures to ensure that qualified electors who are caused to be disenfranchised are provided a ballot. The procedures shall be transmitted to the Legislature for their immediate approval or disapproval no later than 60 days prior to any election for which the ballots are to be cast.
Notwithstanding any other provision in the title, upon approval by the legislature, the procedures shall become effective immediately and shall have the force of law, except that the use of the procedures shall cease upon declaration by the executives that the emergency no longer exists.
The House went further and deleted the whole section in the current election law which gives the Chief Election Officer authority to adopt, amend and repeal rules under the Administrative Procedure Act, governing elections, election procedures and the selection, establishment, use and operation of all voting systems now in use or to be adopted and all other similar matters relating to elections that in his judgment shall be necessary to carry out the purpose of this title.
Instead the House has amended the bill to allow off island absentee voting for stranded voters only for this year’s election.
The amendment reads: “Only for the election of November 3, 2020, a qualified elector, who would have otherwise been able to vote in person, but by act of the government was caused to be absent from the territory on Election Day in person.
The House has also added this language: The Chief Election Officer shall dutifully enforce the laws governing requests for absentee ballots. A copy of the procedures employed by the Chief Election Officer to enforce this chapter shall be transmitted to the Legislature no later than 30 days prior to the printing of ballots for each election or as soon as reasonable or practical.
Chief Election Officer, Dr. Lealofi Uiagalelei and Attorney General Mitzie Jessop Taase said at a House hearing yesterday on the bill that they didn’t see anything wrong with the House amendments.
A concern of lawmakers was how the Election office can verify voters genuinely stranded off island due to COVID-19, and also in the event there is a repatriation flight, how to prevent voters who cast ballots from off island, from voting again locally. Also how to ensure that registered voters stuck in countries other than the US due to the border closures can also vote absentee.
The Chief Election Commissioner revealed that 188 ballots for stranded voters who have requested absentee ballots are being mailed out.
He assured that all steps have been taken to ensure that all of these requests are from voters who are genuinely stranded due to the pandemic.
Dr. Uiagalelei said when these ballots are received they will be put aside and not mingled with other ballots.
The House passed the bill with amendments yesterday and will vote on it in final reading today. Because of the changes, the bill has to go back to the Senate for a vote on the amendments.