The change to single-member voting districts ahead of the Cayman Islands May 2017 general election will affect everything from how representatives interact with voters to how political campaigns are conducted, and even the logistics of casting ballots, lawmakers agreed this week.
“[This is] one of the most significant constitutional and electoral changes this country has made,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said Monday.
The change to one man, one vote, which was approved in a 13-3 Legislative Assembly vote on a government motion Monday evening, must still be signed by the governor and applied in various amendments to the Cayman Islands Elections Law. However, during debates and discussions this week it was clear that politicians and political hopefuls were already gearing up for a different kind of democracy.
The switch to single-member districts means that voters in Cayman’s larger multimember districts, George Town, Bodden Town and West Bay, as well as the smaller district of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, will no longer be able to vote multiple times on election day.
In the 2013 general election, for example, a George Town voter could choose up to six representatives to send to the Legislative Assembly. West Bay and Bodden Town voters got four votes each, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman residents two each, and East End and North Side districts one apiece. In 2017, there is effectively – for voting purposes – no longer any George Town district, Bodden Town district, etc. Each single-member constituency, of which there will be 19, will send just one person to the assembly, and voters in those areas can cast only one vote for their preferred candidate.
In North Side MLA Ezzard Miller’s view, looking at voting districts consisting of anywhere between 500 people (in Cayman Brac) and 1,100 people (George Town) means grassroots politicking will be in full effect.
“In 2017, there’s going to be a lot of people walking and visiting people’s houses and developing relationships with people in a smaller area,” Mr. Miller said.
East End MLA Arden McLean also expects the “coattail” effect, always thought to be prominent in the larger multimember voting districts where a popular candidate could pull in other candidates “on the slate” will dwindle – perhaps not at first – but certainly over time.
“Over the next two elections … [the multimember district candidates] will all learn what it is to be members of a single-member constituency,” he said. “It won’t be the first [election], it’ll be the second one.”
However, Cayman’s two major political parties are still expecting to bring their “coattails” along with them in 2017. The Cayman Islands Democratic Party leader, West Bay MLA McKeeva Bush, said he and the two other CDP MLAs currently serving in West Bay will run “as a team” and bring in candidates from other voting districts to run with them as is typically the case during elections.
“We will run as a party throughout the country,” Mr. Bush said. “But the Cayman Islands Democratic Party will … have separate [political] machineries in each area.”
Premier McLaughlin, the leader of the Progressives party, has often opined that single-member districts serve to strengthen party politics in other Caribbean countries where they are in effect. However, there have been concerns that popular Progressives Bodden Town MLA Anthony Eden, now 70, will not seek reelection in 2017. There was also some gentle public needling Monday of Progressives founder and party stalwart Kurt Tibbetts about having one more campaign prior to retirement.
“We just got to squeeze that one more term out of him and then we can let him go,” Bodden Town MLA Osbourne Bodden said.
Mr. Tibbetts was more concerned about Cayman Islands voters, who have been voting under the multimember district system since 1962, being able to understand and participate in the new democratic order.
“To many, the change is a shock,” Mr. Tibbetts said. “It is not something that is easy coming to them and I understand that.”
Mr. Bush agrees and points out that at least one of the new single-member districts in West Bay does not appear to have any facilities in which to hold balloting on election day.
“You have to have voting polling stations in each constituency,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s going to be more costly.”
Freshmen backbench lawmakers Joey Hew and Winston Connolly have publicly fretted, along with Mr. Bush, about the possibility of “the criminal element” taking over certain electoral districts and “digging in” creating what are often referred to in Jamaica as “garrison districts.”
Mr. Tibbetts, while not denying the possibility it could occur, said that one man, one vote in the form of single-member constituencies would not be to blame if it did.
“I don’t like this word g-a-r-r-i-s-o-n,” Mr. Tibbetts said. “If that is to happen … in this country, it doesn’t matter what kind of system you have, you will find those pockets if they are allowed to thrive and exist.”
Mr. McLean pointed out that Mr. Tibbetts and Mr. Eden have been in public office for the past 23 years running. “Where are the garrisons that these two members have created?”
Opposition MLA Bernie Bush said he was concerned that the legacy of one man, one vote would be to bring continuous redistricting to the Cayman Islands.
“You get another government in and they’ll just change it back,” he said.