House and Senate come to agreement over amendments to the voting law
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Despite initial opposition from Senators over the amendments the House made to the Senate bill that would allow voters stranded off island due to the COVID-19 pandemic to vote in the November 3rd elections, Senators last Friday approved the changes during a conference committee.
Earlier, Senators had rejected the changes, but at a conference committee between the House and Senate led by the Senate President and House Speaker, on Friday, a compromise was reached to accept the changes made by the House.
During the discussion, Sen. Faamausili Mau Mau Jr, who had introduced the Senate bill voiced his objection to the House amendments. He stated that his concern was that the House had deleted language in the election law giving the Chief Election Officer the authority to make changes to rules for the conduct of elections according to the Administrative Procedures Act.
However, other Senators including Muagutiti’a Taua’a said lawmakers should not disenfranchise registered voters now stranded off island and the Senate should go along with the changes made by the House.
Other Senators stated that Fono leaders must come to an agreement for the benefit of votes who are stranded off island due to the pandemic.
The conference committee ended with the Senate approving the House amendments to the bill.
During the Senate session that followed the conference committee, Senators passed the changes and the bill is now being enrolled and sent to the governor for his review.
Last week Monday Sen. Faamausili expressed his displeasure that House Representatives had completely changed the election law, which was crafted by leaders who have passed on.
Reps had removed a provision of the Senate bill stating that if there’s a declared national or local emergency, the Chief Election Officer can prepare procedures to ensure that qualified voters are able to cast ballots. And these procedures must be approved or disapproved by the Fono no later than 6- days prior to any election.
In addition the House has deleted a section of the current election law, which gives the Chief Election Officer authority to adopt, amend and repeal rules under the Administrative Procedure Act governing elections, and all other similar matters, which in his judgment shall be necessary.
Instead the House inserted under the category of those who may vote by absentee ballot: “only for the elections of November 3, 2020, a qualified elector, who would have otherwise been able to vote in person, but by action of the government was caused to be absent from the territory and unable to cast a ballot in person.”
Also added by the House is language stating that the Chief Election Officer must enforce the laws governing requests for absentee ballots and a copy of the procedures employed by the Chief Election Officer to enforce this chapter shall be transmitted to the Fono no later than 30 days prior to the printing of ballots for each election or as soon as reasonable or practical.
Faamausili said the House should have gone along with the Senate bill instead of changing it, which in his view prevented voters who are affected by the closure of the borders to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the upcoming elections. He urged that the Senators reject the amendments and return the bill to the House.
Senator Logoai Siaki was also critical of the House saying that after the House Speaker wrote to the governor about voting for stranded residents the House didn’t take any action to address the issue. It was only the Senate, which moved to amend the law so that these voters are not disenfranchised.
Senators passed a motion to reject the House amendments and return the bill to the House which brought about the necessity for the conference committee.
It has been the position of the Election Office all along that under current election law, the Chief Election Officer has the authority to make changes for the conduct of elections, without Fono approval.
Chief Election Officer Dr Lealofi Uiagalelei said at a House hearing two weeks ago that 188 absentee ballots for voters who are stranded off island have been mailed out.
The Chief Election Officer and Attorney General Mitzie Jessop Taase said at the House hearing on the bill that they didn’t see anything wrong with the House amendments.
A concern of lawmakers was how the Election office could 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.
Another concern was how to ensure that registered voters stuck in countries other than the US due to the border closures can also vote absentee.