Morning headache is followed by refreshingly boring afternoon and evening count with a few surprises
International observers have a standard way of assessing aspects of an election when they visit different countries. They use the grades Poor, Good and Very Good.
The international team that came to Cayman during the week before our General Elections shared that information after its members asked to meet the local team. As one of 10 people in that group, I found myself nodding to endorse the words of team leader Norman Bodden when he welcomed the visitors and said we had all been honoured by our appointment.
Mario Galea, international team spokesman, made us all feel comfortable as he explained how our roles would be supplementary to theirs because they were looking at the whole election process from voter registration to campaign spending.
We were to concentrate on procedures during Election Day itself, although the international people would also be commenting.
Given the cordial atmosphere of the meeting, I found it easy to ask questions. When one of the men explained that “Very good” was the highest grade they gave, I couldn’t help blurting, “But this is Cayman. We want to be Excellent or Outstanding!”
When the international team held a press conference after Election Day, Mr. Galea was asked to assess Cayman as to the proper conduct of the elections “on a scale of one to 10.”
“Nine,” he replied.
I felt vindicated. My earlier remark may have been audacious, but it was not without foundation.
My Wednesday, 22 May, started when the alarm went off at 3.30am. Scores of people around Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac were already up and at their post or nearly there because it was Election Day: at 5am, 46 ballot boxes would begin being moved to the polling stations where over 17,000 voters would be able to deposit their ballots over an 11-hour period.
With such numbers in my head, plus all the possibilities of what could happen before I heard an alarm clock again, I was far too excited to eat breakfast or even have a cup of coffee. I just wanted to get down to the Elections Office where things were happening.
I had already signed a domestic observer pledge, by which I promised to serve as a non-partisan election observer for the conduct of the polls and the count of votes. I promised to complete checklists provided, noting positive as well as negative factors. I agreed to attend training and adhere to methodologies employed by the team.
Mr. Bodden had called us together several times, distributing a proposed strategy that we adapted and adopted. We would attend the opening of polling stations alone so that we could observe as many as possible. Afterwards we would travel in pairs, in keeping with international observer principles. Those principles also indicated that we should spend half an hour at each polling station we visited.
On Wednesday morning my intention to be obedient flew out the window, which was easy enough because there were no windows. I am not breaking any confidences by reporting that my first visit was to the polling division venue for West Bay North West.
The thousand voters assigned to cast a ballot there could see for themselves that the New Testament Church of God had many wide spaces in its walls, but no windows or doors covering those spaces. My caffeine-deprived brain started to ache. I wondered if international observers would describe this place as Poor.
But the roof was enclosed to keep out sun or rain, and there was a solid albeit temporary stair case at the entrance, with plenty of orange paint sprayed to mark differences in walking levels.
Inside, I observed three polling stations, each enclosed in black curtains hanging from metal pipe frames.
All voters were supposed to enter through the front doorway and go to the correct station according to the first letter of his or her last name. They were then supposed to exit at the back, through an opening in the curtains. Once through that opening, they could observe the rest of the church nave or they could turn right and leave through an opening in the side of the building, where a ramp led to both the front and back.
I started to write on my checklist that this side door looked vulnerable if anyone were minded to enter through the exit and cause mischief in any one of the stations. My head started pounding and I wondered if there was such a thing as Poor-minus. But even as I formed the letters of my first word, the polling division’s deputy returning officer appeared in the exit opening with a police constable.
The constable rearranged an exit sign and then posted himself in the doorway so that he could monitor that area and polling station three as well. Clearly, I was not the only observant person around.
The proximity of the three stations had made it easy for me to take note of the opening of the polls for all of them, from the showing of the empty box to the signing of the adhesive seal by candidates’ agents.
I first sat in the back of Station One, but few people named A to D showed up. Sounds from Stations Two and Three were intriguing so I walked around to watch. I wondered if voters had enough light to see their ballot without any overhead lights, but I didn’t hear anyone complain.
One agent told a presiding officer she had seen a man walk into the voting booth with a small card in his hand; she wondered if it might be a forbidden crib sheet. The officer said she would check and she did. When the man returned his ballot for her to remove the counterfoil, she apparently asked him what he had in his hand. It turned out to be his voter ID card.
Few voters gave their name, address and occupation loudly enough to hear, but the polling clerk repeated each one with appropriate volume and enunciation so that agents were able to keep track on their voters lists.
At the front of the building, voters E-L and M-Z formed their lines in the corridor. They spoke quietly or not at all. Back at the exit again, I was surprised by the number of people who left the polls smiling, sometimes at the agents, sometimes to themselves.
When Mr. Bodden said two days later that the atmosphere he experienced was like church, I could only agree.
Equally pleasing was the common sense approach election workers took to handle situations. Station 3 poll clerks lifted the black curtains away from their window; whether for light or breeze, it didn’t matter because the integrity of the voting process was not being compromised in any way. A logistics officer pushed a man in a wheelchair up the ramp to the exit and took him in to his polling station that way rather than try to negotiate the steps. Another election worker accompanied an air-conditioning technician to check the portable unit in each polling station; their conversations were so muted I could only guess what they were saying.
Everything I was seeing lifted my spirits, but caffeine deprivation had kicked in, so when my partner picked me up, I begged for a stop somewhere to get a cup of coffee. The first gas station we went to was closed because it was a holiday, but the second one was open and the coffee was delicious.
Our next stop was equally quiet, although there were lines of voters. Police Commissioner David Baines greeted us outside during his rounds. I wondered why there were several candidates standing in line with voters until I realised that was their voting station, too. There were conversations, but I got the impression the voters had initiated them, not the candidates.
Only two things out of the ordinary occurred the rest of the morning. One involved a man who apparently did not understand enough English to respond when the poll clerk asked him to state his name, address and occupation. I anticipated that he would need help with his ballot
and I looked forward to seeing how the presiding officer would deal with that situation.
However, another voter spoke to the man in Spanish loudly enough for everyone to hear the translation of the poll clerk’s request. The man gave his information, received his ballot and went into the voting booth. When he came out he handed his ballot to the presiding officer according to procedure; he watched her remove the counterfoil and he took his ballot back to deposit in the ballot box, then left the station. No drama after all.
Then another polling division and more people quietly waiting in line. A candidate brought lunch for his agents and apologised for not bringing something for everyone, but how would he have known.
A young woman who came to vote had no identification with her. The presiding officer asked if any agent present could vouch for her. No one could. The woman said she did have identification at home, so she was told to get it and when she came back she could come to the head of the line.
Then, although election officials were working straight through the day, observers took a break.
Afterwards, three more polling divisions with 10 more stations. I took seven pages of notes compared to 31 in the morning — mostly because there were fewer voters, partly because the process played out the same. Sitting in a rearranged classroom with little activity was boring and refreshing at the same time.
But whether I saw two voters or 200, the longest part of the process was usually the recording of voter information in the poll book — a repetition of name, address, occupation and number allotted on the official list of electors. I would think name and number would be enough, but the Elections Law requires what it requires.
There were no voters waiting in line at 6pm where we were, so the presiding officers followed the closing procedures as dictated by the law. Agents signed the seal over the ballot box slit. Election workers gathered their gear and made sure the number of ballot counterfoils matched the number of voters; that the total number of ballots used, spoiled, or unused matched the total issued.
Meanwhile, logistics officers were rearranging furniture for the count, with tables forming a horseshoe and a smaller table at the opening.
When the deputy returning officer arrived to conduct the count, she made sure that counting agents had signed the required oath or affirmation and received tally sheets. She explained how she would take ballots from the box one at a time and call out the number of each candidate who had received an X, display the ballot and then place it in a separate container. If anything about the ballot seemed unusual, she walked around so that each agent could examine it up close.
The agents were courteous and cooperative; after an hour of watching her stand, several suggested she reposition the ballot box so that she could sit while they could still see.
Throughout the evening and into the night, agents remained civil, even offering each other food or bottles of water. When a ballot was rejected because it had too many Xs, there was no dissent.
When a ballot contained what to me seemed an unusual combination of candidates selected, no agent demanded to see it for himself. I did not see any request for a recount.
As the night became morning again, the patience and good humour exhibited throughout the day continued. I left my last counting station at 3am feeling guilty I couldn’t stay awake, but other observers had completed their tasks in their districts and at least one stayed with George Town until the end.
People have asked if the local observers were paid. The answer is no, we did not received any money. We did have access to rental cars with gas already in the tank. Supervisor of Elections Kearney Gomez asked if he should arrange meals for us, but that wasn’t practical because we didn’t know where we would be or when. We did have an open invitation to eat at the Elections Command Centre, where a kitchen/dining area had been set up.
One thing I did receive I will hold as precious as my Certificate of Caymanian Status. It is a General Elections 2013 identification card naming me as Observer with All Access in All Districts. For the rest of my life it will remind me of the intimate role I was honoured to have in an event that illustrated so well so much of what is good and endearing about the Cayman Islands.