Top stories of 2012 Referendum fails, vote debate continues

A referendum to institute an election system where every elector in the Cayman Islands can only vote for one person failed in July. 

The Cayman Islands has a system whereby each voter going to the polls for a general election can cast a vote for up to however many representatives there are in the voting district in which he or she lives. Since different districts have different numbers of representatives, people living in multiple-representative districts like George Town and West Bay have more votes than people living in North Side or East End, which only have one representative. This system, it is argued, gives those living in more populous districts more say in electing the government that holds power. 

The inequity of the system has been debated for more than a decade. A Constitutional Commissioner’s report in 2002 recommended a ‘one man, one vote’ system in 2002, saying it was the people’s wishes. One man, one vote was discussed during Constitution modernisation talks in 2003, but McKeeva Bush,then Leader of Government business, said there was no support for the change in his home district of West Bay and 
abandoned the idea. 

The issue came up again during Constitution modernisation talks in 2008 and 2009, but in the end, the People’s Progressive Movement government didn’t push for the change, although it left the door open for its implementation in the new Constitution that was ratified by referendum in May 2009. 

In 2012, the issue came to the forefront again when in February an ad hoc committee, backed by legislators Ezzard Miller and Arden McLean, launched a petition to force a referendum on the matter by 30 November, 2012, with the idea of changing the election system before the May 2013 general elections. 

The Cayman Islands Constitution of 2009 requires the signatures of at least 25 per cent of the total number of voters to force a people-initiated referendum. Needing in the vicinity of 4,000 signatures, the One man, One Vote Committee set out on a campaign to obtain verifiable signatures of voters on the petitions. In addition to setting up booths in front of places like supermarkets with high amounts of public foot traffic, the committee had people going door-to-door. 

At one point, it looked like public servants – a significant portion of voters – would not be able to sign the petition because of their employment rules, but the government cleared the way for them to sign petitions in certain cases, including that pertaining to the one man, one vote issue. 

Initially, then-Premier McKeeva Bush tried to dissuade the notion of having the referendum in 2012, saying it would be held at the same time as the 2013 elections, saving the cash-strapped country the expensive of doing it beforehand. 

Mr. Bush then announced at a public meeting in March that he was against implementing a one man, one vote system because, among other things, it would create too many single-member constituencies in which every constituency’s voters would have unrealistic expectations of getting something from the government for their constituency, something the government couldn’t afford.  

By early April, the One Man, One Vote Committed had already obtained more than 3,000 signatures on its petition. On April 12, when it had become evident the One Man, One Vote Committee was likely to obtain the necessary number of signatures on its petition to force a referendum, Mr. Bush suddenly announced that there would be a referendum on the issue in a little more than three months, on 18 July, 2012, asking the question, “Do you support an electoral system of single-member constituencies with each elector being entitled to cast only one vote?” 

The government said the date, which fell on a Wednesday, would be a public holiday. 

Almost immediately afterward, Mr. Bush launched an anti-one-man-one-vote “education” campaign that included appearances on radio talk shows and public meetings. Mr. Bush said that the efforts to change the election system were not motivated by “high-minded academic principles” but instead by “political opportunism”. He warned, among other things, that adopting single-member constituencies would create “garrison politics” similar to what exists in Jamaica. 

According to the Constitution, in order for a successful referendum to become binding on the public, it had to receive the affirmative vote of the majority of the total number of electors, not the majority of those casting votes. Those advocating for the change pointed out that since the government had announced the referendum on its own initiative rather than waiting for the petition, it was not a people-initiated referendum. They argued, therefore, that the government could accept a simple majority of those who voted to vote yes, rather than requiring a majority of registered voters to vote yes.  

However, the government stuck to its guns and required the ‘super majority’. With 15,161 registered voters, the number of affirmative votes required to make the referendum issue binding was set at 7,582 people. 

Advocates for one man, one vote said that by requiring a ‘super majority’ meant that anyone who didn’t cast a vote in the referendum was effectively voting no. The government initially told voters that they didn’t need to vote if they opposed one man, one vote, but eventually changed its tactic and urged people to go to the polls and vote no. 

When the referendum took place, only 8,677 people went to the polls, a little more than 57 per cent of the electorate. Even though the ‘yes’ votes far outnumbered the ‘no’ votes, with about 65 per cent of those casting ballots voting in favour of a one man, one vote system, the number of yes votes – 5,631 – fell 1,951 votes short of making it binding on the government. With every voting district except for West Bay having a majority of electors vote yes on the referendum, advocates called for the government to adopt the new electoral system anyway, which is and continues to be an option available to any government. 

The UDP government declined to do so, meaning the voting system for the May 2013 general will not have a one man, one vote system in place. However, the issue remains open for a future government to make the change by the stroke of a pen, regardless of the results of the 2012 referendum.  

Even though the ‘yes’ votes far outnumbered the ‘no’ votes, with about 65 per cent of those casting votes said they were in favour of a one man, one vote system, the number of yes votes – 5,631 – fell 1,951 votes short of making it binding on the government.  

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