In a report released this week, election observers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association British Islands and Mediterranean Region made 21 recommendations to improve the voting process in the Cayman Islands. Their observations, especially those concerning suffrage and campaign finance, deserve serious consideration.
Of particular note, the observers took issue with the obvious – the unequal weight of voters depending on the districts in which they reside. For example, East End’s 692 registered voters have a disproportionately greater impact in their district’s elections than, say, the 1,513 registered voters in Bodden Town East. The Sister Islands are also way out of balance.
Observers also voiced concerns about lengthy residency requirements for voters – even those of Caymanian status – and the exclusion of permanent residents from voting. This is the junction at which voting rights and human rights oftentimes collide.
But some of the most troubling shortcomings found by observers are in the area of campaign finance.
Unfortunately, the loose and permissive language of the laws governing campaign contributions calls into question the seriousness of legislative intent to ensure a free, fair and transparent process that is impervious to undue influence. For example:
- Campaign contributions are only reportable between Nomination Day and Election Day, leaving the door open for donors to make confidential political contributions before the reporting window “officially opens.” That’s a loophole big enough for a Brink’s truck to drive through undetected
- No financial disclosure statements are due to be filed before the election, denying voters material information that might inform their choices at the polls
- Even though candidates are required to file campaign finance statements post-election, those reports are not required to be audited or otherwise verified.
As reported in the Cayman Compass this week, a single political donor contributed nearly as much to his preferred candidates ($194,000) between Nomination Day and Election Day as the entire Cayman Democratic Party spent during that same period ($232,461.34). We see nothing particularly untoward with this level of financial participation in our democratic process. Spending limits by individual donors (as long as they are dutifully disclosed) creep perilously close to infringing upon freedom of speech rights.
We are, however, concerned that the Progressives were allowed to file a “party submission” that failed to detail expenditures by individual candidates. Such a bulk disclosure tells us, well, just about nothing.
One of the biggest challenges to election reform, and this is true around the globe, is that it is the very representatives who were elected under the standing rules that must agree to stricter requirements. Increasingly, especially in matters of voter representation involving redistricting and gerrymandering, the courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) are stepping in to do what the politicians will not.
Elections observers offered these additional recommendations regarding transparency, oversight and sourcing of campaign funding:
- Amend election law to make campaign donations and expenditures truly transparent – including in-kind donations and third-party expenditures – and mandating standardized financial reports from candidates well in advance of Election Day
- Establish clear penalties for failing to report campaign donations and expenses, giving the Commission for Standards in Public Life a stronger oversight role
- Consider funding of political parties to strengthen those parties and minimize the impact of individual donations. (The Compass would strongly argue against such a notion.)
There is much good to share about the 2017 election: Election observers were pleased by the “vibrant and peaceful” election season and “extremely high standards” of election administration. The increase in the number of registered voters – 21,227, up from 18,492 in 2013 – was also encouraging.
Now that all of the 2017 votes have been counted, many electors may have been disappointed that their preferred candidate did not prevail at the polls, but as a country, all voters, it is fair to say, “won.” Our elections were well-administered, fair, honest and peaceful. Let’s start working now to make them even better in 2021.