Practically speaking, divvying up the Cayman Islands into 18 (or is it 19?) single-member electoral districts is a simple and straightforward operation. Politically speaking, it’s anything but.
The process of “redistricting” is the crucible where practical and political considerations collide. While the fundamental idea of Cayman’s “one man, one vote” endeavor is that each person’s vote ought to count roughly equally, the reality is that the shape of a voting district is often a predictor of a particular politician’s destiny (and, in the accumulation, that of the country as a whole).
As the saying goes, “Elections are when voters choose their representatives, but redistricting is when representatives choose their voters.”
Purposefully drawing a district to optimize the political fortunes of a particular representative (or party) is not a new phenomenon; indeed, a term for the practice was coined more than 200 years ago – “gerrymandering” – a portmanteau of the last name of then-Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and the word “salamander,” which is what the oddly shaped district looked like to contemporaneous wags at the Boston Gazette newspaper.
In a place as small as Cayman, whether a voting district includes Luxury Apartment Complex A on one block, or Affordable Housing Development B on the next block over, could very well be the difference between the larger district being represented by Politician A or Politician B. And because Cayman has a parliamentary democracy, the placement of that single line could conceivably determine which party gains power over government’s legislative branch and who becomes premier, head of the executive branch.
All told, redistricting is an insiders’ game of minutiae with major ramifications to the public as a whole.
It is, in a word, complicated … in many cases, it can get downright messy. In the worst instances, the topic of redistricting comes to dominate the agenda of lawmakers (and becomes a primary weapon to crush political opposition), at the expense of the formulation of useful public policy.
As a longtime veteran of the redistricting process in the U.S. and other countries, Cayman’s Electoral Boundary Commission Chair Lisa Handley is well aware of all of this. In fact, she’s an expert. A week ago, Ms. Handley said that from a technical standpoint, redrawing Cayman’s multi-member voting district map into single-member districts is “not a particularly difficult exercise.”
She continued, “As to how long the Legislative Assembly might sit on this, that adds complications to it. But in terms of the technical process, it’s not difficult.”
The sorts of “complications” to which Ms. Handley refers have already begun to emerge since the Boundary Commission started its work about two months ago. For example:
- North Side MLA Ezzard Miller and East End MLA Arden McLean vehemently oppose the idea of merging their small districts, though each contains about half as many voters as the other single-member districts would
- Initially, Ms. Handley said the Boundary Commission would draw a map with 18 districts. Since then, she has said the commission is “taking into account” adding a 19th seat, or perhaps offering multiple maps for lawmakers to consider
- With the 2017 election still two years off, about 25 percent of voting age Caymanians have not registered to vote – a significant information gap that may skew the drawing of electoral boundaries
- Champing at the bit for possible 2017 campaigns, potential candidates – such as retired Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor, who is now a talk show host on government radio and TV – are pressuring lawmakers into going one way or the other on “one man, one vote.”
Remember: This has all arisen in a relatively brief period of time, two years before the next election, before any maps have even been seen.
We ask ourselves, and now our readers, is our current electoral system so deficient that it demands we open this Pandora’s box and risk the release of gerrymandering and, generally speaking, cartographical gamesmanship?