Although the 2021 general election is almost a year away, elections officials are already figuring out how voting will take place if the COVID-19 crisis continues until then or beyond.
This would include such considerations as implementing postal ballots and placing polling booths far-enough apart to meet social-distancing regulations, Elections Supervisor Wesley Howell told the Cayman Compass in a Zoom interview.
Governor Martyn Roper announced last week that the next general election will be held on
26 May 2021.
Howell said his team has been keenly observing developments locally when it comes to the health crisis and they have been discussing contingency plans.
“If we’re still in the middle of some level of social distancing, we would have to re-examine the number of polling stations that we have and also maybe even look at the legislation in relation to postal ballots and having people vote remotely that way.
“But it all depends on where we are within the next six months or so in relation to what we do,” he said.
Currently, under the law, postal voting is only allowed for those who are not on island during an election.
“We do have the flexibility of adding additional polling stations so that we can reduce the number of persons that would be lining up at any particular polling station in order to vote,” Howell said.
For events leading up to Election Day, such as Nomination Day on 31 March, when candidates register as nominees for election, the status quo may remain, he said.
“[Nomination Day] typically involves the candidates coming in with a couple of people to sign up for it,” Howell said. “I would imagine that nominations would follow through in a normal process.”
Getting a head start
The Elections Office is more fully prepared for the 2021 poll than it would normally have been, as it had already been getting ready to hold the now-cancelled referendum on the cruise port.
“Our folks are fairly well prepared because we did quite a bit of preparation for the [cruise port] referendum,” Howell said.
The people-initiated referendum, spearheaded by the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman petition-signing campaign last year, was initially scheduled for December 2019.
“We have 21,800 persons registered [to vote]. That’s the highest that [voters’] list has been ever,” Howell said, adding that this was because so many people had signed up to participate in the referendum.
Howell said while his team does not kick into high gear until the election writs are issued, on 9 Dec., there is still a lot of ground to cover before that happens.
“Essentially, we start to ensure that our logistics are in place. We have sufficient booths and all the materials we need for the volume of persons,” he said.
He said the 26 May election date was determined after “heavy discussions” with Roper.
“The date of the general election has to satisfy a couple of things, including the constitutional requirement to have the elections within four years of when the LA [Legislative Assembly] first meets after a general election. So, we’re happy with that date,” he said.
He reminded voters to register as soon as they can because there are only three more opportunities left to get onto the Register of Electors.
“We have a voter-registration deadline in July, one in October, and then the final one will come in January 2021. That list would come on 1 April, which would be the list we would use for the general election,” he said.
As for those voters who will be turning 18 on or before 26 May 2021, Howell said, they can register to vote any time before that period.
“We will take their information and add them to that final list, ensuring that they were able to vote on that date,” he said.
COVID-19 and the voter process
Since March, Cayman has been under shelter-in-place and curfew regulations, leading to operations at the Elections Office being realigned electronically, as has been the case with all government departments.
Howell said, despite the restrictions, the voter-registration process has continued uninterrupted.
“As it now stands with the COVID-19 procedures, our offices are physically closed, but we’re still able to maintain contact with our customers through email and telephone and we also have a cellphone WhatsApp for folks who prefer to message us via that…,” he said.
Howell added the law allows voters to register electronically and it is something the Elections Office has been doing for years, particularly for university students and others staying overseas who need to register.
However, he said, with the COVID-19 restrictions, the team at the Elections Office has been “doing a lot more [electronic registrations] now than we had been previously”.
“They can call us at  949-8047. They can email us at [email protected] or they can send us a WhatsApp at cellphone number  927-2830.
“The staff are monitoring all of those channels and they can direct them as to where the forms are located, send them through if necessary, and if they need to make physical contact for something specific, then they could make arrangements for that to happen as well,” Howell said.
Key dates to remember
9 Dec. 2020: Issuing of writs
22 March 2021: Notice of nominations
29 March 2021: Dissolution of assembly
29 March 2021: Proclamation declaring general elections
31 March 2021: Nomination Day
7 April 2021: Notice of contested elections
26 May 2021: Election Day
31 May 2021: Elections writ returns to the governor
30 June 2021: Candidate elections expense returns due
10 July 2021: Publication of candidate expense summary