Resentment toward elections officials and the attorney general continues to build among candidates in Cayman’s May elections who are frustrated by alleged arbitrary opinions that disqualified some and forced others to renounce rightful citizenship.
In the wake of Friday’s Grand Court decision legitimising Cabinet minister Tara Rivers’s West Bay election, despite long overseas absences and her holding a US passport, former candidates Richard Christian, Sharon Roulstone and Kent McTaggart have spoken out against what they are calling arbitrary and legally unqualified advice from election officials.
“I was disqualified because I was born in the Cayman Islands,” Ms Roulstone said Monday, underscoring the inconsistency of Elections Office decisions.
“My US citizenship was conferred upon me by my dad, who was born in Tampa, Florida, as was my sister,” she said. Aware of the controversies surrounding ownership of a foreign passport, however, she said, “I ran it past the Elections Office, and a committee ruled me ineligible, and on the basis that I was born in Cayman.”
The Constitution allows electoral candidates to hold a foreign passport by right of birth elsewhere, Ms Roulstone explained, but she fell outside the formula: “I thought that being born here put me in a good position. They said if I had been born abroad, I would have been qualified.”
In the wake of the advice, she renounced her American citizenship, surrendering her US passport on 31 January, nearly two months ahead of nomination day on 27 March. In the event, she finished eighth in a field of 21 in the six-seat George Town district.
“I was really disappointed because of their lack of cooperation,” Ms Roulstone said. “They refused my request to give me the decision in writing. When I asked for a written record, they stopped returning my calls.
“So I gave up a right I didn’t have to. I am exploring my legal options.”
Bodden Town’s Kent McTaggart found himself doubly punished by elections officials. He dropped his candidacy on 23 March, advised by elections officials that he did not fulfil constitutional requirements for seven years’ residency prior to nomination.
“I have a US passport,” said the Coalition for Cayman co-founder and 20-year owner of a local construction company, “but I am slightly different. My absence from Cayman was because I have a special needs son, who was in the hospital.”
The Constitution exempts a candidate’s absence in cases of medical needs, but, Mr. McTaggart said, “It does not state if you are a parent. My son was newborn, and until about the age of two was in the hospital 70 times.”
Essentially, he says, he was punished for having a son who required intensive medical care.
“You should have heard the screaming fit I had with [former elections supervisor] Kearney Gomez and [former deputy elections supervisor] Orrett Connor, who said the constitution was absolutely clear.” The meetings included Deputy Elections Supervisor Colford Scott and Bodden Town returning officer Edward Solomon.
As in the case of Ms Roulstone, he too was refused anything in writing.
“They would not send me a written record of the decision. It was all verbal,” he said.
Richard Christian was more successful with his request for a written record of his disqualification – on the basis of his holding a US passport.
On Monday, he released the letter, signed by returning officer Mr. Solomon on 25 March and which was sent to Mr. Christian two days prior to nomination day after the candidate had sought his advice regarding ownership of a US passport.
“At the time I provisionally advised you that, as a returning officer, I did not think that you were eligible under the Constitution.
“The Elections Office has received advice from the attorney general’s chambers. We have been advised that whilst being born outside the Cayman Islands is not in and of itself a disqualification, if a Caymanian possesses and uses a foreign passport, and obtained such passport by his or her own act as an adult, that such act is viewed to be a voluntary act to acknowledge allegiance to a foreign country,” Mr. Solomon wrote.
“Based on this advice and on the face of the facts before me, as returning officer, I have concluded that you are disqualified from being a member of the Legislative Assembly … I am unable to accept your nomination. Accordingly, your name will not appear on the election ballot for the district of Bodden Town,” he wrote, inviting Mr. Christian to seek a “declaration from the court” should he wish to challenge the decision.
Mr. Gomez said the Elections Office did not dispense legal advice, and that candidates were obliged to determine their own eligibility. “The law requires them to determine whether they are qualified or not,” he said. A district’s returning officer is in charge of nominations, however, and if an unqualified candidate is somehow certified, Mr. Gomez said, “[The registering officer] is under a $5,000 penalty.”
The returning officer would have made his decision based on what Mr. Christian submitted, he said, “what he put in the forms or questionnaire”.
Deputy Elections Supervisor Orrett Connor said Mr. Christian had been given sufficient time to seek a judicial review, but that Mr. Solomon would never have written on his own initiative.
“The returning officer would be remiss if he did not do some due diligence on his own in the process,” Mr. Connor said, “and we provide some oversight and advice, but we would not draft a letter like that without the advice of the attorney general.”
Additional questions affected Mr. McTaggart and Ms Roulstone, he said, but a regional diversity of legal opinions in the courts had prevented what he called “settled law”.
“We have one decision in Jamaica, one in Turks and Caicos and now another one in Cayman. The courts have pulled us in different directions,” he said, calling on local government to legislate consistent constitutional provisions.
In his Grand Court decision last Friday, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie explicitly rejected Mr. Solomon’s 25 March advice to Mr. Christian.
Former United Democratic Party legislator Cline Glidden on Monday acknowledged he had “always had a US passport, and no one said anything. I did not have to renounce it as a candidate”.
“We have had a history of this, but it’s never been an issue,” Mr. Glidden said, referring to sitting representatives Moses Kirkconnell and Kurt Tibbetts.
He since dropped his US passport because “I haven’t used it for as long as I remember, and have had no need for it,” but he said the questions only emerged between 2005 and 2007 when regional courts began to examine clauses regarding “acknowledgment of obedience or allegiance to a foreign power” as part of gaining an overseas passport.
“It was a narrow definition in my time,” he said, “but the courts have broadened that to paying taxes or applying for passports, making changes to the ‘acknowledgement’.”
Ms Roulston was adamant about voting officials dispensing legal opinions: “The Elections Office is not in a position to give legal advice. At least they should have told me to get private advice. I spoke to [Mr. Gomez] himself. I asked who was in control. He said ‘a group’.”
Retrieving her US passport promised to be arduous, she said, “I can’t get it back unless I live in the US for eight years and it could be a 15-year period.”
In the wake of Friday’s decision, she said, “I think the time is right to bring a challenge.”
Mr. McTaggart said he has “no intention of suing. It would be irresponsible and wouldn’t change anything. I want to do what is best for my country and be sure nothing like this ever happens again.
“This whole thing needs to be re
worked, the direction and the timing of challenges,” he said. “The period from nomination day to election day needs to be extended, and any challenges need to come before elections so the attorney general can determine them. We should never have to wonder if someone is eligible.”
Looking toward 2017, all three candidates said they are hesitant about running again.
“It was a rude awakening,” Ms Roulstone said. “Politics is dirty. It’s ugly. It’s unfair and there is no question that it is corrupt. It left such a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll continue to be involved with my country. But whether I run again is a very big question mark.”
Mr. McTaggart was equally reluctant, but said “my action is to ensure that corrective measures are taken in Cabinet. I lost time and money, but I am still working for my country”.
Mr. Christian has already said he was unlikely to run, but left the door open, saying, “You know it’s not going to be easy when you get into these things, but you just have to fight it.”