Speaker Tina Muna Barnes
With only a few days left before the scheduled primary election, the Guam Legislature is rushing to cancel the voting process amid the enhanced community restrictions prompted by the spiraling number of Covid-19 cases on Guam.
Speaker Muña Barnes said she will call an emergency session on Aug. 27 to discuss her bill that would authorize mail-in voting in lieu of the face-to-face primary election, which is scheduled for Aug. 29, the day after the governor's stay-at-home order expires.
Last month, officials of the Guam Election Commission testified they were capable of executing the 2020 primary elections
However, due to Guam being placed under a stay -at-home order and Pandemic Condition of Readiness I, GEC said the situation has changed. Election officials said the commission is no longer able to carry out an election as planned without putting the lives of thousands of residents at risk.
During an emergency board meeting Friday afternoon, the GEC board recommended the cancelation of the primary elections.
GEC board member Jerry Crisostomo said at least 15 precinct officials, who have already gone through a training, have quit over fears of getting exposed to Covid-19.
Last week, Guam saw a spike of Covid-19 cases locally, suggesting that there is a rampant community spread of the virus. “In order to keep our healthcare facilities from reaching their breaking point and to ensure the safety of our residents as well as election personnel, we must take action to ensure that safeguards are put in place” Barnes said.
The Republican Party of Guam, while slamming the legislature's eleventh-hour action, expressed support for postponing the primary election until Sept. 12 to provide the GEC ample time to address some of the issues outlined in their letter to the governor on Friday.
"We encourage this legislative body to extend early voting until days prior, and for the Governor to work with the National Guard to assure that both the staff and management of GEC, the precinct officials and all voters have a safe 'rescheduled' primary election" the Republican Party said.
“We also need to be proactive so that in the General Election, residents can feel safe exercising their right to vote and that is why I included a mail-in provision in this measure” Barnes said.
Barnes said while the new proposal requires immediate action, upon the directive of the Department of Public Health and Social Services, and the advice of legal counsel, the legislature has been directed not to resume in person until Aug. 27. She said due to an Organic Act provision, the Guam Legislature is unable to take action on matters virtually.
The cancellation of the primary elections was first proposed by Sen. James Moylan and Sen. Therese Terlaje through Bill 375-35, which however, was defeated in the Guam Legislature.
"The key objective of the measure was to address the healthcare concerns with this pandemic, and thus allowing the Guam Election Commission and Guam Legislature ample time to plan for a safe and successful general election. The measure failed 4-10," Moylan said.
"With less than a week to go before the primary election, both the governor and the Speaker have now raised the very health concerns that Bill 375 outlined last month and are proposing to cancel the primary Eelection all together. I am glad that they are finally recognizing our position from July, however my concern is that this decision is a very last-minute reaction which would endorse voter suppression," Mpylan said.
Moylan said the situation has changed much since Bill 375 was introduced and then defeated, as over 2,200 residents casted their votes via early office voting.
"Canceling the election all together would essentially be sending a message that their votes don’t matter. This I cannot support," he said. "I agree that the primary election should not proceed as scheduled for Aug. 29 as it is just a day away from the Governor lifting an extensive stay-at-home executive order."
In a separate statement, the Republican Party took the administration to task for "lack of foresight is gross negligence."
"Interestingly, the new solution in discussion by Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and Speaker Tina Muna-Barnes is a slap in the face of democracy, particularly for those over 2,000 island residents who took advantage of early voting for the primary election," the Republican Party said.
"Even one of their own Democrat senators has an issue with this. The message Governor Leon Guerrero and her puppets in the Guam Legislature are telling these island residents is that your voices do not count, and we are throwing away your ballots. It is immoral to interfere in an election process, and the people of Guam should demand better from their elected officials."
Sen. Kelly Marsh Taitano is seeking the Office of the Attorney General's opinion the legal ramification of the proposed cancellation of te primary election.
"A question that voters have brought to me is, what happens to the votes cast by off-island and on-island absentee ballot voters? Votes casted total more than 2,284, or 12-14 percent, of the anticipated Primary Election voter turnout. In fact, some absentee off-island votes are probably on their way to the GEC in the mail right now. Are they just destroyed?"
“Before we take a drastic action, like cancelling a Primary election, in which over 2,200 people have already voted, it’s important that we get the AG’s input to make sure that everything is legal and aboveboard,” Marsh (Taitano) said. “The last thing anyone wants is to open up the election to legal challenges later on.”