Debate on elections law goes down to wire

Lawmakers voted to amend the Elections Law Monday, just in time to meet the deadline to change Cayman’s election legislation prior to the May 2013 general election.

The amendments were necessary for Governor Duncan Taylor to issue the writs of election Wednesday, which will pave the way for the general election to take place. Monday was the last sitting of the House prior to Wednesday because the Legislative Assembly does not usually sit on Tuesdays as this is when Cabinet meetings are scheduled.

The Elections Amendment Bill officially changes the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly to meet the increased number of members of the assembly from 15 to 18 in the next election, as stipulated in the 2009 Constitution.

The amended law increases the number of seats in George Town from four to six and in Bodden Town from three to four.

Although a majority of MLAs had previously voted in favour of recommendations of the territory’s Electoral Boundary Commission to increase the seat numbers in the two districts, that vote must be accompanied by corresponding changes to the Elections Law.

After Premier McKeeva Bush called for the suspension of standing orders to allow the bill to be brought before the Legislative Assembly without the required 21 days’ notice, Acting Deputy Governor Dax Basdeo presented the bill and details of its clauses to the House.

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North Side independent MLA Ezzard Miller, a proponent of a one man, one vote electoral system where only one representative would be elected in each constituency, said he would not support the bill, describing it as unconstitutional.

Mr. Miller objected to the bill being brought before the Legislative Assembly without 21 days’ notice, saying the recommendations of the Electoral Boundaries Commission, on which the bill is based, had been tabled in June 2010, leaving “ample opportunity for the government to have brought the bill” in compliance with the notice period stipulated by standing orders.

He said he believed the bill contravened a section of the 2009 Constitution Order which states that an elector shall be entitled to vote for an elected member. “What this bill seeks to do is to increase the opportunity for a registered elector or voter in the district of George Town to vote for six elected members of the Legislative Assembly as opposed to the constitutional right to vote for ‘an’ elected member of the Legislative Assembly,” Mr. Miller said.

He added that the Supervisor of Elections, his staff and government will be “knowingly condoning an action for an election that they know is unconstitutional”, and that he believed the amended law could be subject to legal challenges that could lead to the government paying hundreds of thousands, “if not millions”, of dollars.

Independent member for East End Arden McLean said he did not support three new members being added to multi-member constituencies, echoing Mr. Miller’s call for a one-man, one-vote system.

A referendum on the proposed introduction of a changed electoral system that would enable the establishment of single-member constituencies in which each voter can vote for just one candidate was unsuccessful in July.

Mr. McLean questioned whether Cayman was leaving itself open to a judicial review on the election process by allowing three retired individuals – Supervisor of Elections Kearney Gomez and deputy supervisors Colford Scott, who retired as managing director of the National Roads Authority Board in 2007, and Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor, who is due to retire in January – to head up the Elections Office.

The Elections Law (2009 Revision) states that the governor shall appoint a “senior public officer” to be supervisor of elections and appoint up to three public officers to be deputy supervisors.

Insisting he was not calling the integrity of any of the election officials into question, Mr. McLean said the three men in question had been senior civil servants, but upon retirement, they could no longer be considered civil servants, but rather private individuals on contracts. He called for an amendment to the wording of elections law relating to the appointment of election officials to better reflect the reality of the situation and to remove any ambiguity.

Addressing Mr. Miller’s concern of the use of the term “an elected member” in the Elections Law rather than the plural term “members”, Attorney General Samuel Bulgin said it was standard and preferred practice to draft laws using singular rather than plural references. ‘”It is a common way of dealing with these issues. It’s how things are drafted,” he said.

Concerning the supervisor of elections, Mr. Bulgin said Mr. Gomez was given an “underlying appointment” to the Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs “which qualifies him as a public officer” and as such he was asked to continue as the elections supervisor.

During his input in the debate, Leader of the Opposition Alden McLaughlin asked why it had taken three and a half years, since the introduction of the 2009 Constitution, for the government to bring amendments to the Elections Law, querying why the matter was being dealt with “on the eve of the dissolution of this House”.

Both Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. McLean expressed concerns about the cut-off date of 2 January for elector registration prior to the May 2013 election. Anyone who registers to vote after that date will not be able to cast a ballot in May.

The leader of the opposition pointed out that, with the Christmas and New Year holidays approaching, “for the registration process to close on 2 January, it effectively means the process will close next week for all intents and purposes and I don’t think that is necessarily in the best interests of the democratic process. I don’t believe it does a great deal for our reputation as a forward thinking modern democracy”.

He said he intended to write to Governor Taylor about the possibility of changing the 2 January cut-off date.

Premier Bush, responding to some of Mr. McLaughlin’s comments acknowledged that the People’s Progressive Movement, during its administration, had amended the cut-off date for voter registration in the run-up to the 2009 election, but had done so at the last minute, on 24 December, 2008.

At the time, the PPM government extended the registration deadline for the 20 May election from the initial date of 31 December, 2008 to 31 January, 2009.

“How do you think you can get away with complaining about this government and how this one took so long?” Mr. Bush asked the leader of the opposition.

The premier said the country had decided on the one man, one vote issue in the referendum in July this year, but said in hindsight perhaps he should have included in that referendum question, which the government drew up, an option for the people of Cayman to decide if they supported the addition of three new members to the roster of MLAs in the Legislative Assembly.

“That probably should have been part of it. One man, one vote was such a fundamental change to our system that I wanted to hear from as many people across the board and I did not want that part of the vote mixed up with something else, so we decided to have the referendum on the one issue, the one man one vote,” Mr. Bush said.

He added that he had received input from the public that they would not have supported the addition of more members to George Town District or to increase the addition of three new members to the House.

The proposed bill passed the committee stage without amendments and the majority of legislators voted at 5.45pm to pass a third reading of the bill, its final stage before being passed into law.

Members also voted to defer bills and motions on Monday’s order paper to a later meeting of the House. This was the last meeting of the Legislative Assembly before Christmas and members delivered their Christmas messages and greetings before the House adjourned.

Elections polling

George Town ballot boxes are loaded during the 2009 election. George Town voters will return two additional members in the 2013 election, bringing the number of MLAs representing the district to six.
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