EDITORIAL – Petition verification must be thorough, swift and fair

Certainly, it is necessary, now that government is in possession of a petition seeking a referendum concerning the construction of a planned cruise and cargo port facility, that some kind of verification process take place.

It must be clear, beyond reasonable doubt, that the signatures are valid and the threshold for triggering a people-led referendum has been reached.

But we are considerably less certain that government has chosen an efficient, effective and fair method for conducting this important process — effectively duplicating the petition drive by requiring signers to fill out new signed declarations.

Referendum backers have cried ‘foul’ over the plan, which they call onerous. They make a compelling point.

As campaigner Johann Moxam asked the Compass, “Why is the Elections Office taking the extraordinary step of redoing the petition? They already have the signatures bound and presented. Verification should be a simple yes or no question – did you sign the petition?”

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Government’s position is that this is uncharted territory for Cayman.

Although the 2009 Constitution created this mechanism for a people-led referendum on issues of national importance, this is the first time Cayman’s voters have availed themselves of that right.

Elections Supervisor Wesley Howell has stressed the importance of independently verifying every signature, assuring the public his staff will be able to quickly do so. He has said he plans to recruit 100 staff members to conduct the verification process, canvassing door-to-door, if necessary. Petition signers can take matters into their own hands and go to the Elections Office to confirm their support.

We do not doubt for a moment the choice of verification procedures has been motivated by anything less than a deep desire to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. One potential benefit to such a thorough process is that it will leave no question as to whether the threshold has, indeed, been met.

But as referendum proponents point out, there are other, less resource-intensive ways to verify that referendum-seekers met their mark. In light of Premier Alden McLaughlin’s apparent dismissiveness of referendum-seekers’ efforts, it is not difficult to see why some are dissatisfied by, or even suspicious of government’s decision to take the harder road.

Earlier this month, the premier asserted that government need not, and will not, slow progress on the port project unless and until petitions have been verified by the Elections Office and are turned over to Cabinet. He has said he expects a final bidder for the project to be selected in the coming months.

In light of developments, the premier should seriously consider his position: Will he call a ‘time out’ on port developments while officials verify referendum petitions? Will government hold off on making any binding commitments until the verification process is complete?

A decision of this size, scope and historic significance should not be determined by a race to the finish line.

“Trust, but verify,” as US President Ronald Reagan liked to say. In this case, it is government’s thorough, swift and fair treatment of petitioners that will build a stronger foundation of trust.

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