Hasselback: Many claiming to be residents do not qualify

CEC processes 984 absentee ballots; tabulation of all absentee ballots today

It now appears that many persons who are claiming residence in the CNMI do not qualify for such residence under CNMI law, according to Commonwealth Election Commission administrative hearing officer George Lloyd Hasselback.

This developed as CEC commissioners at a meeting yesterday formally named them members of the tabulation committee for absentee ballots. Acting CEC chair Jesus I. Sablan presided over the meeting held at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe.

After the meeting, CEC started processing the 984 absentee ballots that came at the post office on Saipan last Nov. 8. When Saipan Tribune left the center at 3:35pm, the processing was still ongoing.

CEC will pick up more absentee ballots this afternoon, Tuesday, at the post office. The tabulation committee will process the collected absentee ballots then tabulate all absentee ballots.

Hasselback strongly recommends that the CEC take steps to begin meaningful enforcement of CNMI laws regarding residence and domicile as it relates to eligibility to vote in CNMI elections.

Hasselback made the determination and recommendation in two of several administrative orders pertaining to alleged “dual voters.” In these two orders, he ruled that the 45 named as “dual voters” should not be removed from the CNMI register of eligible voters for the Nov. 8, 2016 general election.

Hasselback said such enforcement should commence as soon as possible and not be left to the month immediately prior to an election.

Hasselback said such enforcement should, at an absolute minimum, include a review of absentee ballot requests, rigorous investigation into whether registered voters in the CNMI qualify as “residents” for voting purposes and the removal from the list of registered voters of those who do not so qualify after sufficient notice and opportunity to be heard has been provided.

According to Hasselback’s decisions, assistant attorney general Michael Witry presented documentary evidence that established by a preponderance of evidence that all the 45 individuals have requested absentee ballots for the election.

Along with the requested absentee ballots, CEC provided a letter to each of the 45 individuals that indicated it would be seeking the removal of their names from the CNMI’s register of voters as it believed they were not “residents” of the CNMI pursuant to law.

Witry presented that the 45 individuals appear on the roll of registered voters in another state or territory of the U.S.

Hasselback said he finds that the Oct. 18, 2016 letter, delivered with the requested absentee ballots, provided adequate notice to the registered voters that their status as registered voters in the CNMI was being challenged by the CEC, due to the CEC’s determination that they were registered to vote in another state or territory of the U.S.

Hasselback further finds that given such notice, the 45 persons had an opportunity to be heard.

During the hearings for each of the 45 individuals, they each stated that they did not affirmatively register to vote in the foreign jurisdiction in which the CEC demonstrated they were listed as registered voters.

Foreign jurisdiction in this instance refers to a state or territory other than the CNMI.

Each of the 45 individuals stated that they did not seek to be registered anywhere other than the CNMI.

While the statute upon which the CEC based its challenge to the CNMI residency of the 45 individuals does not specifically cite an “intent” requirement, a plain-language reading of it strongly indicates that one must take some affirmative step to register in another jurisdiction before automatically losing their residency in the CNMI for purpose of registering to vote, Hasselback said.

Specifically, Hasselback cited that 1 CMC Section 6204(g) says: A person loses his residence in this Commonwealth if the person registers to vote in another state or area under the U.S. or other jurisdiction.

Hasselback said given that the predicate to losing one’s residency under this portion of the statute is when a “person registers to vote in another state or area” and this predicate is clearly written in the active voice, unless someone makes some affirmative act to register elsewhere, they will not automatically lose their status as a CNMI resident for purposes of voting.

Hasselback said since the CEC has not sufficiently established that any of the 45 persons took any affirmative act to register to vote elsewhere and these individuals have each stated on the record that they were added to those lists through no action of their own, the CEC has not met its burden under the law, it is his finding that these persons shall remain registered voters in the CNMI for the 2016 general election.

Hasselback said the CEC did present evidence and argument to urge that some of these persons should be removed as registered voters in the CNMI due to other factors that demonstrate that they are not “residents” of the CNMI for voting purposes.

Hasselback said such evidence included periods of extended absence from the CNMI, inadequacies in the affidavits used to register to vote, inadequacies in the applications for absentee ballots and other compelling evidence that indicates that some of these persons have established residency outside of the CNMI and are ineligible to vote in the CNMI’s 2016 general election.

Hasselback said he must admit that this presents a troubling picture of a lack of any meaningful enforcement of the specific statutes that govern residency in the CNMI for the purposes of voting.

Further, many of these persons may, in fact, not be residents of the CNMI for purposes of voting.

However, Hasselback said, he does not find that they were given adequate notice that their residence in the CNMI for purposes of voting would be challenged for any basis other than they appeared to be registered in a foreign voting district.

Hasselback said the Oct. 18, 2016, letter only specifically mentioned that that the CEC was alleging “dual registration” as a basis for their challenge of the 17 persons’ residence in the CNMI.

Hasselback said this ambiguity in notice was further exacerbated by the short period of time these persons were given to respond to the CEC’s determination.

Considering that this discussion concerns the potential disenfranchisement of voters, Hasselback said he must err on the side of caution and require more notice be given to these potential voters before considering factors other than their apparent “dual registration.”

In an interview after the CEC meeting, Witry said CEC gets all the absentee ballots and opens up the mailing envelopes. Inside an envelope is the ballot that has the signature on it that says yes, he or she is the person who requested the absentee ballot.

“So what we are doing today is we are taking all the ones that we received up until now and we are opening the mailing envelope, we leave the ballot closed,” he said.

Witry said they are comparing the signature on that envelope with the signature on the voter registration affidavit to make sure that it’s the same person that requested for an absentee ballot.

For today, Tuesday, Witry said once they get the final batch of absentee ballots in from the mail then they will process, and feed them to the machine to make sure that they are counted. Asked what time they are going to start the tabulation, Witry said the law strongly implies that they have to get this done by midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday because the ballot counting law expires then.

“After we get all the absentee ballots counted, then we can certify the results of the election,” he added.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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