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Chief Election Officer updates cabinet on Election 2020 — absentee ballots for stranded voters sent out

American Samoa Election Office

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — More than 250 requests for COVID-19 absentee ballots for local active voters stranded off island due to border closures have been received by the Election Office, which has already sent out the ballots, as preparations are well underway for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election.

At last week’s cabinet meeting the Election Office presented the agency’s plans and preparation for the general election, in the midst of current challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Election Office is prepared and equipped to administer the 2020 general election during these unprecedented times. Our mission always is to protect the integrity, not of the election office, but of the election process,” declared election official, Laloifi Saelua in closing out the 30-minute the presentation.

Saelua presented the status of off-island absentee ballots including the overseas absentee voting, or the regular absentees — for military personnel, local students attending colleges off island, and ASG employees — and also the new category of COVID-19 absentee voting, for  active voters stranded off island due to border closure.

Saelua provided data as of last week Tuesday and the Election Office — responding yesterday to Samoa News inquiries — provided updated data as of Sept. 22nd:  298 COVID-19 absentee ballots requested and were mailed out, but only one-ballot has been received back.

For the regular overseas absentee ballots,152 were requested and sent out, none have been received as of Sept. 22nd.

In her presentation, Saelua said the Election Office has already made preparations in the event the governor approves a repatriation flight prior to the general election, with a Plan B action plan, which adds additional polling stations to the current 40 polling stations for large voting districts, based on the number of registered voters.

Additionally, the “possibility of early voting” using the Election Office in Tafuna as the polling station for electors to cast ballots for a two-week period prior to election day, “as an option”.

Another option calls for electors 65-years and older — the age group consider ed at high risk of infection to the virus — be included in the category of local absentee for the disabled voters, including those home-bound/illness, and unable to go to the polls on election day to cast ballots.

Saelua also shared COVID-19 absentee voting guidelines implemented to ensure that only “active voters” stranded off island are allowed to vote and the Election Office has put in place a verification process.  It’s also through this vetting process that the Election Office was able to deny requests from American Samoans who have lived off island for a while and therefore are not eligible to vote.

She explained that the person requesting an absentee ballot must be an “active voter” — meaning their name is already on the voter-roll. New voter registration is not allowed from off island, as current law requires an individual to register in person at the election office. Furthermore, stranded voters also cannot request name-changes or transfer their voting from one voting district to another.

A question that has been raised by candidates within their respective campaign camps is how the Election Office verifies COVID-19 absentee ballot requests making sure only active voters are the ones voting. According to Saelua’s presentation, when the request form for an absentee ballot is sent in, the signature on the form must match the signature of the voter on file with the Election Office. If not, it’s rejected.

 And if the borders re-open at least two weeks before the general election, the Election Office will discontinue COVID-19 absentee voting.

According to the presentation, COVID-19 absentee ballots are identified by ballot envelope to differentiate this special category from the other absentee ballots that fall under the regular oversee absentee ballots.

Furthermore the transmittal and receipt process for COVID-19 absentee follows that of the regular overseas absentee voting process.

Saelua said the Election Office has had some requests for absentee ballots under this category that are not eligible as they are not registered voters.

She also provided data on the absentee ballot. For example, during a mid-term election — on average — the Election Office receives about 50 to 80 regular absentee requests. During a general election, which includes the gubernatorial race, the usual average number is between 150 and 170.

Samoa News notes that while Hawaiian Airlines fights between Honolulu and Pago Pago remain suspended - through the end of October — and the US mail is being uplifted by the weekly cargo flight.