The Progressives-led government has “concerns” about a proposed change in the territory’s election system, Premier Alden McLaughlin said Wednesday, appearing to favor a slight shift in a long-stated political party position supporting the creation of single-member voting districts.
Mr. McLaughlin said it is the government’s consensus – including the three independent members who joined with the Progressives after the May 2013 general election – that the current multimember voting districts in George Town, West Bay and Bodden Town are patently unfair and should be changed. However, whether they should change to a system of 18 or 19 single-member constituent districts is another matter, the premier said.
“Where there are concerns … they relate to consequences of single-member constituencies made up of such small numbers that it becomes incredibly easy for the outcome of an election to be wrongly influenced,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
“At long last, I see he’s come to his senses,” Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said later in the debate. Mr. Bush has claimed that Mr. McLaughlin was never a true supporter of single-member voting constituencies. The opposition leader has consistently opposed a move toward such an electoral system.
The premier later said that options for government to consider could include having 14 or 15 single-member districts and making the remaining Legislative Assembly seats “at large” positions – meaning they would be elected by the entire territory. Mr. McLaughlin said this would still allow for equality of votes among electors while ensuring some members of the assembly are required to keep an eye over the affairs of the entire country, not just their own district.
The comments came during a debate of a private members motion filed by East End MLA Arden McLean. Mr. McLean’s motion asked government to consider implementing “one man, one vote” in the form of single-member districts within three months, giving the territory enough time to readjust its voting procedures ahead of the 2017 general election.
Mr. McLean and North Side MLA Ezzard Miller led the charge for a 2012 referendum that sought voters’ permission to implement single-member districts ahead of the 2013 general election. The measure passed by a roughly two-to-one margin, but it did not gain enough votes to be considered legally binding under the Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009.
Mr. McLean said Wednesday that the will of the Caymanian voters on the matter was clear following the referendum. He said earlier comments from various politicians that local voters needed educating regarding a change to single member districts were “disrespectful” and noted that some of the MLAs now sitting in the House “kick-started” their careers by supporting the “one man, one vote” effort.
“We continue to be disrespectful to the people who elected us,” Mr. McLean said. “With the exception of the [former] United Democratic Party, every candidate in this country supported single-member constituencies, or so they said. I wonder if that was convenient because the election was upon us and we just had a referendum and the results [were] overwhelmingly in favor of single-member constituencies.”
Page 22 of the Progressives party manifesto released prior to the May 2013 election reads, in part: “We shall continue to uphold the highest standards of good governance by:… Amending the Elections Law to establish single member constituencies in good time for the 2017 elections, thereby giving effect to the desires of a majority of Caymanians who participated in the One Man, One Vote referendum.”
Mr. McLaughlin said Wednesday that the government had not decided on any electoral system and that the idea needs much more consideration before being implemented.
During the continuation of the debate Thursday, Mr. Miller said he was “truly, truly, truly disappointed in the coalition government’s response” to Mr. McLean’s private members motion. Mr. Miller said at-large constituencies would simply give more Legislative Assembly positions to the country’s largest district, George Town.
“What opportunity do you think someone has with 600 people [in a district] … going up against somebody with a 7,000 voter base? None.”
Cayman’s current multimember voting system allows a George Town resident to mark up to six names in favor of his or her district candidates. In West Bay and George Town, voters choose up to four candidates, and in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, voters choose two. Only East End and North Side are currently single-member voting districts.
The premier said what is ultimately important is establishing equality of votes among electors.
“Equality of franchise and the power of the vote isn’t just about how many votes you have,” he said. “It’s also a cardinal principle that the constituency numbers ought to be roughly the same size. Otherwise you aren’t going to have equality of voting anymore.”
Under the 2010 Electoral Boundary Commission recommendation that split Grand Cayman into 16 single-member voting districts, each district would have widely varied in size from fewer than 600 to about 900 voters. That map was drawn at a time when there were only 15,000 registered voters in the Cayman Islands. Now, there are well more than 18,000 and the difference between the largest districts in George Town and the smallest districts of East End and North Side could be two-to-one.
Off-mic in the Legislative Assembly chamber Wednesday, Mr. McLean said that the premier was seeking to combine voters in East End and North Side into one constituency.
“I’m not suggesting that at all. I understand and I respect the historical boundaries of the districts,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “Fairness is fairness. It must work the same right across the board. You cannot start off talking about what should be the same for everybody else and then say it cannot be the same for my district.”
Mr. McLaughlin then denied insinuations, that have long percolated in the local political arena, that he could not keep his own MLA seat in George Town without help from the Progressives party organization. “I will fare as well as anybody else in any system in the district of George Town.”
In fact, Mr. McLaughlin said, the politically clever move for the Progressives would be to implement single-member voting districts right away.
“I shouldn’t object to the introduction of single member constituencies because it actually does improve the chances of political parties continuing to dominate the electoral process,” he said. “This is the concern of the entire government team. To split the Cayman Islands into 18 or 19 constituencies is going to result in such small constituencies, in many instances, that the result of the elections process could be easily manipulated.”
In most Caribbean countries with single-member voting districts, two major political parties have dominated for decades. In Jamaica’s 2011 election, for instance, the People’s National Party received about 53 percent of the vote, with 47 percent of the vote going to the Jamaica Labour Party. Four other political parties that contested the election received only about 1,000 votes among them, out of more than 800,000.
In the United Kingdom, three parties split the majority of seats in the House of Commons, requiring two diametrically opposed groups, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democratic parties to form a coalition government. “That is much more the exception than the rule,” Mr. McLaughlin said.