The Cayman Islands’ decision day is just two weeks away. The Journal takes a comprehensive look at what is currently the country’s hottest political debate.
It was a balmy June night in West Bay outside the ‘Super C’ restaurant on Watercourse Road, but those gathered weren’t there for an after-work drink; they were there to talk politics.
For those who know it, Super C’ may not conjure images of political debate. Nor is West Bay district typically considered fertile ground for supporters of the ‘one man, one vote’ proposition that will be placed before voters on 18 July.
Yet there was a heated political debate going on right outside the restaurant/bar; about 25 people sitting around on white foldable chairs arguing point and counterpoint, trying to reach a decision on how they would decide on the most significant change to occur within Cayman’s local political system since the approval of a revamped constitution three years ago.
“Every successive government has said it is the way to go,” said local attorney and One Man, One Vote committee chairperson Sharon Roulstone during the round-robin debate. “It allows for a more fair and equitable system of government with accountability from your representatives.”
Not everyone at the meeting was a supporter of the concept.
“Why would I want to give up four votes for just one vote?” asked Sara Louise Orrett, referring to the four votes West Bay residents can now cast during multi-member district elections. “It doesn’t take a person who went to university to figure out four is greater than one.”
The debate over changing the election system in Cayman has been raging for more than a year in communities just like the one on Watercourse Road; on television, on radio, in the newspaper pages. It will come to an end, for the moment, on 18 July when the voters will decide the country’s future democratic path.
How the system works now
Cayman Islands voters currently send 15 elected members of the Legislative Assembly to the house.
Four of those representatives come from George Town district, four from West Bay district, three from Bodden Town district and one apiece from East End and North Side districts. The Sister Islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman operate as one voting district and send two representatives to the Legislative Assembly. The constitution requires that there are at least two representatives from Cayman Brac and Little Cayman in the assembly.
To elect a representative in the four multi-member districts [George Town, West Bay, Bodden Town and the Sister Islands] a voter can check off anywhere from two to four boxes on their ballot when they go to the polls. So if a total of 12 people were seeking public office in George Town, a voter can select up to four names from among those candidates.
Cayman uses what’s known as the ‘first-past-the-post’ election system. The candidates who receive the most votes will be elected; there is no run-off election. Voters in the multi-member districts are not required to vote multiple times under the current system, according to the Election Law, but they have the opportunity to do so.
The six voting districts vary numbers of representatives they send to the LA based on population size. George Town, the largest district, had 5,910 voters as of 1 April, 2012. West Bay reported 3,687 registered voters; Bodden Town 3,457 voters; Cayman Brac and Little Cayman 962; East End reported 582 voters and North Side had 558 voters.
The Cayman Islands operates under a parliamentary democracy system, similar to what occurs in the United Kingdom. That means once representatives are elected, it is up to the members of the ruling government to decide who is to be chosen as the country’s premier and who will be chosen as ministers of government. Under the current system, there are five of those elected ministers, including the premier.
Voters in the Cayman Islands do not elect a person to the premier’s position or any of the ministers’ positions directly. For this reason, the office of Member of the Legislative Assembly is referred to as the highest elected office in Cayman.
Things will change
No matter what voters decide on 18 July during the one man, one vote referendum, Cayman’s balloting will change when the May 2013 general election rolls around.
How much the system changes will be decided, in part, by the voters. The rest of the decision-making will be done by the government in power at the time.
The ruling United Democratic Party has proposed to accept a system, based on recommendations from the 2010 Electoral Boundary Commission, that will add three new positions to the Legislative Assembly; giving the governing body 18 members instead of the current 15. Under that system, the number of government ministers will go from five to seven.
In that system, voters will select six representatives in George Town district and four representatives in Bodden Town district. The number of elected representatives in the other four districts will remain the same.
If the 18 July referendum does not succeed, Cayman looks likely to maintain the current multi-member district voting system.
If the referendum question is approved, at least three – and possibly four – of the current electoral districts will be dissolved. In their place will arise a number of what are called ‘single member voting districts’ or ‘single member constituencies’. What a single member district means is that each sectioned off area will send only one representative to the assembly.
Under the single-member district plan proposed by the boundary commission in 2010, George Town would be divided into six districts; George Town North, George Town South, George Town West, George Town East, Red Bay and Prospect. The new districts in Bodden Town would be Savannah, Newlands, Pedro and Bodden Town. West Bay would also be divided into north, east, west and south.
The boundary commission also sought to split Cayman Brac into two voting districts; Cayman Brac West [which includes Little Cayman] and Cayman Brac East. North Side and East End voting districts were left mostly unchanged since they already operate as single-member districts.
Fourteen of the 18 single-member districts created by the boundary commission are all within 90 votes of one another. The largest two proposed single-member voting districts [George Town Central and George Town West] have 969 voters each. The two smaller districts among the 14 [George Town South and Newlands] have between 880 and 890 voters.
The other four of the 18 districts at the time the boundary commission did it’s work, North Side [571 voters], East End [599 voters], Cayman Brac West [491 voters] and Cayman Brac East [489 voters] were considerably smaller than the other 14.
The referendum question set out by government for 18 July reads as follows: “Do you support an electoral system of single-member constituencies with each elector being entitled to cast only one vote?”
Readers, take note, there is no mention in the referendum question of how many single-member constituencies must exist.
Elections Supervisor Kearney Gomez says one key matter that has not, and likely will not, be approved prior to the public vote in July is the approval by the Legislative Assembly of the 2010 Electoral Boundary Commission’s report.
This could be significant, depending on how the results of the 18 July referendum go.
For the referendum question to be considered legally binding upon government, it will have to receive at least 7,582 ‘yes’ votes – that is officially 50 per cent plus one vote of the Cayman Islands electors eligible to participate at the time of the referendum. A ‘no’ vote numbering 7,582 would also similarly be considered legally binding.
Unless one side or another receives the prescribed “magic number” of votes, any other tallies received on 18 July would be considered merely “advisory” – meaning the ruling government of the day would be left to decide what to do.
“If 6,000 people said ‘yes’ and 4,000 said ‘no’, then it would be advisory [non-binding] to the government,” said Deputy Director of Elections Colford Scott.
Mr. Scott also points out there has been some “misinformation” disseminated about not attending the polls effectively being counted as a “no” vote. He said if there is a weak voter turnout at the polls, the advisory message of voters to their government – be it a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote – will be diluted.
In that case, Scott says, the 2010 Electoral Boundary Commission made three recommendations: first, that George Town district increase its number of electors from four to six and that Bodden Town increase its number of representatives from three to four. That is what the current ruling government in Cayman has proposed to adopt, although they have not formally approved it in the assembly at this date.
The second option proposed by the boundary commission would be to leave the current voting district representative numbers exactly as they are and to create a new representative district – Prospect – with three MLAs representing it. The current government has previously rejected this option.
The third option would be the creation of single-member voting districts; the Electoral Boundary Commission proposed 18. However, Gomez says it would be an option for government to increase the number of MLAs to 19 or even 21, if it decided to, as long as they had commissioned a separate boundary review.
“A lot of things can happen [after the 18 July vote],” Scott says.
Another issue is whether government would wish Cayman Brac and Little Cayman to move to single-member voting districts. Both the current government and opposition parties have said they do not support such a move for the Sister Islands, but if the 2010 Electoral Boundary Commission report is accepted in that regard, single-member districts would have to become reality at least for the May 2013 general election, unless another boundary review is done before then and accepted by the Legislative Assembly.
“Right now, its Cayman Brac East and Cayman Brac West and Little Cayman,” Gomez says.
If there is no binding vote taken during the 18 July referendum – no side receives 7,582 votes or more – then there are lingering questions about what will occur with a voter-initiated referendum petition which has received enough voter signatures to trigger a referendum. The petition calls for a public vote to be held no later than 30 November.
One man, one vote
Although the two issues in Cayman have been inextricably linked, the ‘one man, one vote’ concept is distinctly different from that of single-member voting districts.
Single-member districts mean only that one representative from each district is sent to the Legislative Assembly. In Cayman, if voters approve the 18 July referendum, this will be done by giving electors a single vote in each district.
One man, one vote means, very simply, that each voter gets only one vote. In theory, the concept of ‘one man, one vote’ could be applied to multi-member constituencies and that is done in a number of countries throughout the world.
Pros and cons
The 2010 Cayman Islands Electoral Boundary Commission looked at the advantages and disadvantages of both the current multi-member voting system and the proposed single-member constituencies when it issued its report.
The major appeal of single-member voting districts, according to the commission, is that they provide a clear path to voter representation; put bluntly, the voters know who to go to if there’s a problem.
“They facilitate voters with a readily identifiable representative to whom concerns can be addressed,” the boundary commission wrote. “They maximise accountability.’
The single member districts must be redrawn from time to time to maintain populations of relatively equal size, the commission noted. They also ensure geographic representation, but do not necessarily set up “clearly identifiable communities”, according to commission members.
“The entities [districts] may have no particular relevance to citizens,” the commission’s report noted.
Proportional representation can also be a problem with single-member districts, the commission reported.
“They often do not produce proportional representation for political parties because of their tendency to over-represent the majority party and under-represent the other party,” the report noted.
Multi-member voting districts do tend to present more recognisable “communities of interest”, according to the commission. They also do not need to change boundary lines when population numbers increase or decrease because the system will simply add or subtract representatives accordingly.
“In a scenario of achieving proportional representation, they are preferred, although not all multi-member district systems produce proportional representation for political parties,” the commission opined. “They tend to produce more balanced representation by encouraging the nomination of a diverse roster of candidates.”
However, multi-member constituencies also tend to “dilute” relationships between voters and their elected representatives, “blurring the lines” of accountability for individual representatives.
In the context of the Cayman Islands, the boundary commission stated, single-member districts could be considered in the context of fairness.
“The present voting structure confers different amounts of votes on a voter, for example, each voter in East End and North Side has only one vote [opportunity] to influence government,” the commission wrote. “A voter in the Sister Islands has two votes to influence government as the number of members which the respective districts return to the Legislative Assembly.”
Single member research
The balance of academic research regarding single-member voting districts seems to indicate that method of election tends to support a two-party system.
That has been the case in most of the Caribbean and in the United States in recent decades.
According to research done by Australia’s Electoral Commission: “A…consequence of the first-past-the post [used in conjunction with single-member districts] is the tendency of the system to limit the range of candidates available through fear of splitting the vote. Two separate political parties with similar, but not the same policies, might decide to divide the constituencies between them rather than contesting all constituencies and splitting the vote.”
In contrast, the study argues the limitation of “minor” political parties could be seen as a positive in the formation of stable governments and in the selection of higher-quality candidates.
‘Because elections are contested at the constituency level, there is a greater possibility of outstanding candidates being elected regardless of party support,” the Australia commission opined.
The argument that single-member districts have tended to support large, established political parties is one that One Man, One Vote Committee Chairperson Sharon Roulstone has heard a number of times and she says she doesn’t necessarily disagree. However, Roulstone says her support for ‘one man, one vote’ doesn’t stem from a desire to “get rid of the parties” or to vote out current Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush.
“That’s not our objective,” Roulstone says. “I think it will benefit [political] parties to a great degree; they’ll just get an army of people and plot them in each single-member constituency.”
Cayman does not currently require elected representatives to live in the district in which they are elected and if single-member constituencies are approved, there will still be no residency requirements.
“It doesn’t really trouble me, if the person is good and has something to bring, the people will see what they have to offer,” Roulstone says.
She also believes Cayman’s electorate, which is becoming more savvy daily, is unlikely to accept the “straight vote” mentality, particularly under the microscope of a much smaller single-member district.
“I think it’s going to be more difficult for people to ride in on coat-tails anymore,” Roulstone says. “I think the demographic of the 50-year-olds and older are the ones that are used to the handouts. The younger people are getting smarter and they want accountability as well.”
The Cayman Islands has been a democracy for more than 150 years, but the three-Island chain remains a British Overseas Territory and has not seriously discussed the possibility of going independent from the United Kingdom.
Moreover, the political party system here did not officially come into being until 2001, when what was referred to locally as a ‘coup’ led to a change in governments and fostered the beginnings of the United Democratic Party and the People’s Progressive Movement. Prior to the last decade, governments formed ‘teams’ of like-minded individuals. While some pundits and modern-day lawmakers have referred to those ‘teams’ as political parties in all but name, they were not designated as such.
Research published in 2005 by the University of Essex reviewed the formation of democratic states in 78 countries around the world and uncovered numerous problems in post-colonial countries where political parties were “weakly entrenched”.
“When parties are weakly entrenched and competition is localised, single-member laws will encourage a large number of small parties and independents to run for seats in the legislature,” the University of Essex research paper stated.
The large number of “political entrepreneurs” in the small parties or independent groups lead to the emergence of under-institutionalised and poorly organised parties, the study found.
“Under these circumstances, the authoritarian successor party may well be the only electoral contender in a position to benefit from the ‘large party effect’ characteristic of single-member systems, even if its overall level of support is modest,” the U. of Essex research stated. “The organisational capacity of such a party may well put it in a position to generate support across the country, allowing it to overwhelm a poorly organised and dispersed opposition.
‘Over-large majorities can be expected to be delegitimising and threatening to democracy.”
The Australia-based research referenced earlier states that single-member district voting systems that use the ‘first-past-the-post’ ballot counting method, as Cayman now does and would continue to do if single-member constituencies were adopted, are “widely seen as unfair”. However, the Aussies note that there are many advantages in a two-party dominated single-district voting system.
“Single member constituencies provide for a direct relationship between the member of the legislature and the local constituency,” the Australian Electoral Commission research states. “Second, because elections are contested at the constituency level, there can be a degree of local control over the party’s choice of candidate and parties must take some account of the constituency’s wishes when selecting a candidate.”
The single member district voting system is easy to understand. Whoever gets the most votes wins.
“Electors are not required to choose from vast lists of candidates or to exercise preferences they may not have. The system is uncomplicated and produces a speedy result.”
‘Is your voice more important?’
Back to the ‘Super C’, supporters of the ‘one man, one vote’ proposition are concerned their message has become diluted by politics over the past several months.
“If you have someone who is an ardent supporter of [a particular] regime and you start opposing that regime, you’re turning them away from what ‘one man, one vote’ is all about,” said one resident who attended the June debate in West Bay.
From Roulstone’s perspective, Cayman has some single-member constituencies now in East End and North Side and other multi-member constituencies. “It’s just not working,” she said.
Woody DaCosta pointed out that other British Overseas Territories that have adopted ‘one man, one vote’ and single-member constituencies have not suffered for it.
“Bermuda has about the same square footage and population of Grand Cayman, are they not more successful in terms of financially then we are?” DaCosta says.
Sara Orrett believes other Caribbean jurisdictions, such as Jamaica have suffered from single-member districts. She’s not convinced it’s the be-all, end-all of democratic politics.
“One man, one vote is not implemented in all the countries,” Orrett said. “It has proven successful [in the US] because of the number of voters. Why is it, in a small population like in these three Islands, that we are not encouraging our people to vote for a national vote. It’s only 18 people.”
While he supports the concept of ‘one man, one vote’ and does not believe Cayman representatives should be elected Island-wide, Kenneth Bryan told the group debating the issue in mid-June that one key element was missing from the ‘one man, one vote’ proposition.
“If you’re going to go one man, one vote…you have to seriously consider a term limit policy,” Bryan says, indicating that it would be all too easy for one popular representative to stay in a district elective position for 30 years without serious challenge if they wished.
However, as far as the concept of trading in four votes for one, as Orrett mentioned, Bryan said he believes that’s simply selfish.
“That concept is the concept that got us in trouble,” he said. “We need to stop being selfish now.”
To which Orrett replied: “I’m not telling you what you want to hear, I’m telling you what they’re saying on the street.
For ‘one man, one vote’ supporters the key question, voiced by one of the attendees at the West Bay meeting: “Is your voice any less than my voice?”