Bodden Towners skeptical of government intention
Separate public meetings this week showed that two large voting districts on Grand Cayman are at opposite ends of the “one man, one vote” debate.
When it comes to changing the Cayman Islands general election system, Bodden Town residents remained doubtful about the government’s true intentions.
A number of speakers at Wednesday’s public meeting with the Electoral Boundary Commission at Bodden Town Primary School expressed concern that “something” would happen to prevent government from implementing single-member voting districts in time for the May 2017 elections.
“[There is] skepticism about the concept of one man, one vote and single-member constituencies coming into effect in the 2017 elections,” said local talk radio show host Orrett Connor, the retired government Cabinet Secretary who has previously said he is considering a run for office himself in two years. “Any government that fails to [implement single-member voting districts] runs a high risk of defeat at the polls in 2017.”
Electoral Boundary Commission Chair Lisa Handley, an American political scientist, told a crowd of about 40 Cayman Islands residents that from a technical standpoint, redrawing the current multi-member voting district map into single-member districts is “not a particularly difficult exercise.”
Ms. Handley said Monday that she had set a June deadline for the redistricting map or maps to be completed. Commission member Steve McField, a local attorney, said Wednesday that the task should be completed “before August.”
“As to how long the Legislative Assembly might sit on this, that adds complications to it,” Ms. Handley said. “But in terms of the technical process, it’s not difficult.”
The political wrangling over the idea of splitting Cayman into single-member constituencies has gone on for nearly 50 years. During Wednesday’s meeting, former government minister Gilbert McLean read sections of a 1971 report by Cayman Islands Constitutional Commissioner Julian Edward George Asquith, the second Earl of Oxford and Asquith, which recommended forming single-member districts ahead of the adoption of Cayman’s 1972 Constitution Order.
Forty-four years and two new constitutions later, the British Overseas Territory is still debating the same voting change, Mr. McLean said.
Mr. McLean said he had a “premonition” that the current Progressives-led government would back away from the changes prior to the next election.
“We’re going to hear that it needs more time, it needs more input … the redrawing is going to take more time and we need to educate the populace,” Mr. McLean said.
Three members of the government were present at Wednesday night’s meeting, including Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton, who assured those present that the Progressives had a “clear mandate” to implement single-member constituencies.
“We cannot exclude the possibility that something may put that aside, but I can tell you the government and my party is committed to that,” Mr. Panton said. “This process is under way … we are moving forward.”
Additional LA seat
The concept of adding a 19th, or even a 20th and 21st representative seat to the Legislative Assembly, was discussed at some length during Wednesday’s public hearing. Bodden Town residents who attended, with a few exceptions, did not seem opposed to the idea.
However, attendees did note that they were not sure a new legislative position – if one was formed – should go in George Town.
“I’m not prepared to give George Town anything,” said former Speaker of the House and Bodden Town resident Mary Lawrence. “The population is moving out to this area. People are moving out of George Town and West Bay. So, if anyone is going to get another member, it should be us.”
Boundary commission member Mr. McField said the issue is a thorny one for the three-person commission. Although the vast majority of Caymanian voters still live in the George Town area, the rapid growth on the islands seems to be mainly in three areas: Prospect, Newlands and Savannah. Two of those areas are in Bodden Town district.
“The Prospect area alone [has] over 3,000 people registered to vote in that area,” Mr. McField said. “If that trend continues, we would not be able to fix the [voter] numbers properly in that area and the only solution would be to carve out another single-member constituency.”
Mr. McField was referring to the goal of the boundary commission to have single-member districts maintain the same population, as closely as possible. The exception to that rule will be in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, which have a combined voting population of about 1,000, and which must be split into two districts because of constitutional requirements.
West Bayers split
West Bay residents remain deeply divided over the proposed change in Cayman’s voting system, based on discussions at Tuesday’s Electoral Boundary Commission meeting.
The meeting, which drew the largest crowd of all the public hearings so far – about 75 attended – was peppered with debate over whether Cayman should switch to a one man, one vote system with the formation of single-member voting districts, rather than how those single-member districts might be drawn. Electoral Boundary Commission member Adriannie Webb told the audience at the Sir John A. Cumber Primary School Hall that the political decision on one man, one vote had already been made.
“It’s really only about the boundaries and distribution of the population,” Ms. Webb said. “When it comes to single-member constituencies … that has already been decided upon by the government, by the members of the Legislative Assembly. We have no say in that; we are here to discuss the boundaries.
“The electoral system has already been decided upon. We’re not having that discussion now.”
“Well, what are you having the meeting for?” asked West Bay resident Denny Ebanks.
Mr. Ebanks opined that rather than drawing an actual single-member voting district system, it appeared the government was trying to create “carve-outs” for the much smaller districts of East End, North Side and Cayman Brac-Little Cayman instead of trying to draw each district with a roughly equal number of voters.
As they have explained in previous meetings, boundary commission members noted that the Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009, sets certain guidelines on the formation of new single-member constituencies. Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are constitutionally guaranteed two representatives in the Legislative Assembly. The constitution also advises that commission members “shall have regard” to already existing voting districts.
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush, long an opponent of single-member voting districts, said he understood the remit of the boundary commission, but nonetheless urged the government to rethink its current proposal.
“I remain opposed to this system because it cannot do this country any good other than to divide us more than we are divided already … with my back door against yours and a line between us,” Mr. Bush said. “There won’t be any more community.”
Several other West Bay residents spoke up in favor of the voting change, which aims to be in place in time for the May 2017 general election. Dalkeith Bothwell urged voters not to be afraid of change. “I wholly endorse it and I don’t think we should be fearful of it,” Mr. Bothwell said. “Anybody in this day and age running for a district … has to represent the people on a whole.”
Mr. Ebanks argued with commission members that the government was ignoring the results of a 2012 referendum on one man, one vote, which failed on the
basis that 50 percent-plus-one registered voters in the Cayman Islands did not turn out to support it. Of the voters who did participate in the referendum, far more supported single-member districts and one man, one vote, but the numbers did not meet the constitutionally required threshold.
“We are going to supersede the referendum by this?” Mr. Ebanks said. “[The referendum] did not succeed. Referendum is direct democracy.”
Mr. McField said Mr. Ebanks should take up his issues with the Cayman Islands elected leaders.
“Don’t row with me!” Mr. McField said. “It’s not my game. My game is only to make a report and make recommendations.”