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House passes two election bills

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THE House of Representatives on Tuesday passed two bills to aid the Commonwealth Election Commission with the upcoming midterm elections.

Senate Bill 21-67 intends to allow a member of the CEC board to appear, attend, participate, and vote in an official meeting using a telephone, video, or other electronic means.

Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao clarified that the meetings stated in this particular bill will be held within the CNMI.

The bill was passed unanimously in the House without any further discussion. It now goes to the governor.

Senate Bill 21-68  aims to suspend certain CNMI election laws for the 2020 elections to mitigate the public health risks due to the Covid-19 pandemic; extend the early voting time to 21 days; add more polling places; extend the hours of operation for early voting and election day; authorize curbside voting and procedures; authorize the CEC to collect absentee ballots seven days before the general election; and give the CEC flexibility to make changes to the election procedures if necessary to mitigate the public health risks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rep. Tina Sablan proposed a House substitute bill for S.B. 21-68  to include amendments proposed by an ad-hoc committee composed of members of the House and Senate, as well as the CEC, the Office of the Public Auditor, and the Office of the Attorney General.

The House then dissolved into a committee as a whole to allow members and representatives from the CEC, OPA, and the Office of the AG to discuss the amendments in detail.

 

The House of Representatives on Tuesday discussed two election bills with representatives from the Commonwealth Election Commission, the Office of the Public Auditor, and the Office of the Attorney General. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

Present for these discussions were CEC Commissioner Julita Villagomez, CEC administrative officer Kayla Igitol, OPA legal counsel and director of investigations Ashley Kost, and Assistant Attorney General Robert Glass Jr.

Concerns were raised by the members regarding several matters, including mail tampering, handling of ballots, the language of the proposed House substitute bill, curbside voting, a contingency plan in case there is an uptick in positive Covid-19 cases in the CNMI, additional polling places, as well as the current nationwide postal issue.

The bill includes a sunset provision.

Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero asked the election commission how it determines if a ballot has been tampered with or not.

It was clarified that an OPA representative and election commissioners will handle the ballots.

Speaker Attao, for his part, said in the current global Covid-19 pandemic, it would be difficult to get all of the commissioners together to sign off on every single ballot.

He also noted that a portion of the bill states: “[if] there is more than one person in a vehicle for curbside voting, all persons 18 years or older must exit the vehicle to allow for voting privacy.”

He asked how the commission will deal with curbside voters who may not want to comply with the voting procedures.

In response, Igitol said  this was also an issue during previous elections, but the commission has been able to mitigate it.

Curbside voting will allow constituents to drive in and cast their ballot, essentially turning their vehicles into a voting booth, with representatives from the CEC and  OPA ensuring voter privacy.

Trained poll workers will be required to wear face masks, face shields, and gloves.

The election commission has a contingency plan in the works in collaboration with the governor’s Covid-19 Task Force Chairman Warren Villagomez, Igitol said.

She said additional polling places have been identified and are pending approval by the CEC board.

Constituents voting by mail are required to mail their ballots no later than Election Day. The proposed House substitute bill would allow for 14 days for the ballot to be received by the commission to be counted, as opposed to the commission only counting ballots received by Election Day at the absolute latest.

The commission will be collecting and processing these ballots, including checking for absentee ballots in the mail every other day.

Absentee ballots will be mailed to absentee voters sometime between mid to late September, Igitol said.

Rep. Roman Benavente encouraged the commission to send out the ballots as soon as possible, considering the current federal issue with the United States Postal Services.

House Floor Leader John Paul Sablan raised concerns about the ample time needed for the training of poll workers.

Election Commissioner Villagomez said the CEC is waiting for the complete list of poll workers from the parties before it can proceed with training poll workers for the upcoming elections.

What typically occurs, she said, is that although all parties are given a deadline to submit a list of poll workers to the commission, parties ask for multiple extensions to allow more time for them to compile a list.

This results in less time to properly train poll workers, she said. House Floor Leader Sablan encouraged the commission to obtain the list of poll workers as soon as possible to allow ample time for poll workers to be properly trained.

Igitol said the commission expects to receive the actual ballots from their vendor via air freight by Sept. 14.

With 19 members voting in favor of  S.B. 21-68 as amended by the House, the measure now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Janet Maratita was absent for the vote.

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