Premier Alden McLaughlin has insisted government “has not and will not” interfere with the process to verify the petition calling for a referendum on the cruise port amid criticism from campaigners and opposition politicians.
Opposition leader Arden McLean issued a statement Wednesday, backed by other members of the political group, accusing government of political interference in the process and asking Governor Martyn Roper to intervene in the situation.
Meanwhile, Cruise Port Referendum Cayman campaigners wrote to the governor Wednesday, requesting that he share with them “the legal basis for the anticipated door-to-door verification process and ancillary form”.
McLaughlin said government had instructed Supervisor of Elections Wesley Howell that he would need to satisfy Cabinet that the necessary number of signatures of voters to meet the 25% threshold required by the Constitution, had been reached. But he said government had left the method of the verification process entirely to Howell.
The statement from the Opposition and the letter from CPR Cayman to the governor followed comments by Howell this week.
In response to media questions, Howell had said, “The Cayman Islands does not have legislation which prescribes a process verification of the petition signatures.” He added, “With Cabinet requiring an independently verified list, we are therefore in the position of proceeding with full verification.”
Those comments were interpreted in some news outlets, and by Opposition members, as signifying that Cabinet was directly involving itself in the verification process, which is supposed to be carried out independently through the Elections Office under the supervision of the governor.
Premier McLaughlin insisted this was not the case.
He said, “For the avoidance of any doubt, let me be clear. There has been no political involvement at all in the process for verifying signatures on the petition. We have not and nor will we interfere in any way.
“The Constitution requires the Cabinet to act if a threshold of 25% of registered voters has been met. In order to fulfil our duties under the Constitution, we therefore need to know if the threshold has indeed been achieved.
“Accordingly we have instructed the Supervisor of Elections that he must be able to satisfy Cabinet that the target number of signatures has been properly achieved by the petitioners. The method of verification we have left entirely up to the Supervisor of Elections. We have every confidence in the integrity of the elections office and the Supervisor of Elections.”
Howell told the Compass that Cabinet has “the right to question such a petition with a request for a verification process”.
He said the methodology of the process had been decided by the Elections Office, stating, “as far as establishing the actual verification process – as in the detailed steps/requirements to complete such an action and ensure it’s carried out in a balanced and efficient way, that is done (and in this case was done) by the Elections Office”.
In the absence of a referendum law or other legislation that might allow for sampling or other statistical methods to be used, he said that a full in-person verification was required.
Howell said the Elections Office does not have the signatures of everyone on the electoral roll, particularly those who registered before 1996, so would not be using signature comparison as a verification process.
He added that there were other petitions circulating, including one on same-sex marriage, and that there may have been some confusion from people over which petition was being verified. For those reasons, he said the verification process was not a simple ‘yes or no’ exercise.
Despite public concerns, Howell insisted the process could be done in six to eight weeks. Once staff begin going door-to-door, he said, all people would need to do to verify their support for the referendum was to read a form and sign it. People can also visit the Elections Office on Smith Road to verify their signatures.
Johann Moxam, one of the campaign leaders, has criticised the process, saying the Elections Office is effectively conducting a re-run of the petition.
In its statement Wednesday, the Opposition focussed on the perception that Cabinet was directing the verification process.
McLean said he had requested an urgent meeting with the governor to discuss claims Cabinet was acting outside of its powers under the Constitution.
“The people of this country should be very concerned. The verification process has now become contaminated by political interference,” he wrote.
George Town Central MLA Kenneth Bryan suggested the verification process was designed to put people off.
“It is clear that this move by the government, forcing persons who signed the referendum to now complete and sign an official government form, is designed to intimidate persons and instil a fear of victimisation,” he said.
CPR Cayman, in its letter to Governor Roper, also raised issues of potential intimidation of petition signatories.
“The proposed verification form is intimidating in its current form and simply duplicates the information already provided. Many civil servants and others who signed the petition in good faith may well feel uncomfortable being asked to sign a separate form such as this in the presence of a government employee for fear of losing their job, a government contract or their pension,” the group stated.
McLaughlin has previously said that government will proceed with procurement on the cruise and cargo port and has been advised by its legal team that it does not need to concern itself with the petition until and unless a fully verified version containing the signatures of more than 25% of the electorate is submitted to Cabinet.