Editorial July 20th: A lesson to be learned

 As the dust settles on Wednesday’s referendum, we’d like to bring attention to an important lesson that should be taken away from the outcome: Referendums not held in conjunction with general elections are ill-advised.

We pointed out in an editorial this past February that a referendum on single-member constituencies held prior to the next general election was virtually impossible to produce a binding result, at least based on the threshold required by the 2009 Cayman Islands Constitution for people-initiated referendums. To be binding, more people would have had to vote for single-member constituencies than voted “yes” in the referendum on the Constitution held during the May 2009 general elections. With a contentious issue such as “one man, one vote”, this just wasn’t going to happen.

People suggest voter turnout in Wednesday’s referendum was low, but the 57 per cent turn-out was entirely predictable. When other jurisdictions hold referendums outside general elections, they sometimes struggle to even reach 50 per cent – especially for referendums that don’t deal with the issue of independence. Rather than dealing with people, as general elections do, referendums deal with issues. Issues are not only less engaging than people, they can be difficult to understand, one reason it’s hard to get people out to vote in referendums held outside general elections.

It’s a shame those advocating “one man, one vote” couldn’t have been patient for another year and just allowed the referendum to take place the same time as the 2013 elections, as Premier McKeeva Bush initially suggested. If voter turnout for the upcoming election is near the 79.4 per cent that voted in 2009 and the same percentage of those voting “yes” in Wednesday’s referendum voted “yes” in a referendum held with next year’s general elections, the issue would have passed and been binding on government.

Of course, there’s no way to say how the additional voters would vote in a 2013 referendum and there’s a good argument to suggest most would vote “no” – if they voted in the referendum at all. However, we’ll never know the answer because Wednesday’s referendum occurred 10 months too soon.


  1. I really don’t think that is the lesson to be learned at all. Even though the 2009 Constitution referendum was held in conjunction with the 2009 general elections it did not receive the support of the majority of registered voters. Rather the lesson is that such a majority is unrealistically high for referenda and seems designed to frustrate the expressed will of the people and protect incumbent governments.

    In most countries referanda may be passed by a majority of those voting, sometimes with a requirement of a certain minimum turnout. Last year the UK held a referendum to change its voting system. The turnout was a mere 41%. 68% voting No and 32% voted Yes. The result was described by the BBC as overwhelming. Labour leader Ed Miliband who supported the Yes vote said the people had spoken clearly and it’s a verdict I accept. David Cameron, whose Conservative Party campaigned for the No vote said the referendum had delivered a resounding answer that settles the question over electoral change. Yet here in Cayman we appear to see a 65% majority of those voting on a turnout of almost 58% as indecisive.

    My suggestion is not that referenda be tied to general elections, but instead that we should require a minimum turnout of 50% of registered voters and regard 50%1 of those voting as the threshold to pass. That should be the case for both govt-initiated referenda and voter-initiated referenda. The petition threshold is also too high for the latter. 15% should be quite sufficient. The point of these mechanisms is to make the government accountable to the voters even in the middle of their term. Having with them only at general elections would tend to defeat the purpose.

  2. Referendums initiated by the people are one of the very few mechanisms that the electorate have to limit the damage that can be caused between elections by corrupt and otherwise dangerous politicians. Referendums need to be made easier not removed. That is just one of the lessons learned this past Wednesday.

    The only shame involved in the recent referendum was the way it was highjacked. Those involved in the OMOV initiative should be proud of their achievements.

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