The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered many normal day-to-day activities, from travel to social interaction.

Now, it has also changed how the democratic process will unfold on Election day.

This 14 April there will be no international observer mission on the ground, as has been the norm for general elections.

Instead, a domestic team has been charged with the task of monitoring the conduct of local polls, a mandate which head of mission Hadleigh Roberts said the team is ready to execute.

“We’re only concerned with results in terms of the fair, transparent and prompt announcement of the results. The domestic election observer team has had a rigorous process through which we were vetted,” Roberts said in a recent interview with the Cayman Compass.

A recent article posted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) pointed out that some observer missions have adopted “more innovative strategies in response to the pandemic and instead chose to operate virtually and to collaborate more with domestic observers”.

The International IDEA also pointed out that between 21 Feb. 2020 and 28 March 2021 “at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19, out of which at least 41 countries and territories have decided to postpone national elections and referendums”.

Cayman, which is an enviable position with its COVID-19 management, did not have to consider postponement as an option.

Mixed team selected

Cayman’s domestic elections observers, together with government officials and members of the selection committee. Photo: GIS

Typically, elections are observed by an international mission from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. However, this time around, a domestic observer team was selected due to travel restrictions here and in the UK.

Roberts said the public can be assured the electoral process will not be inhibited in any way and, although it is a domestic mission, there will be input from an international team of officials.

“Well, no doubt it’s a little bit unusual given the global pandemic, but I think what it shows is… resilience and the determination to carry on with democracy as normal. So, when it comes to having a domestic observation team, don’t forget there will be international observers through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association who will be working more virtually,” he said.

The nine-member team was appointed on 29 March and consists of five members selected by Governor Martyn Roper, together with two nominees each from Premier Alden McLaughlin and Opposition Leader Arden McLean.

In the past, observer missions have given Cayman’s general elections high marks and Roberts said he does not expect anything different this time.

“Cayman, by all accounts, is a very mature and stable democracy. So that means that our observation team has quite a lot of leeway to set quite high expectations. It means that there are certain things we’re likely to look at in more detail and certain things we don’t need to worry about,” Roberts said.

Hadleigh Roberts, head of the domestic election observer team. Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Specifically, Roberts says the team is examining the effectiveness and impartiality of the election administration, the political environment, the media landscape, how complaints and appeals are handled and many other election-related questions.

Roberts, like the governor, welcomed input from those within the community who came forward to volunteer to serve on the mission.

“What it shows is that people in Cayman, residents and permanent residents and Caymanians themselves, are able to come together and we’re able to set out a programme to make sure we are just an extra level of scrutiny to the election process,” he said.

Roberts, who has personally worked in at least 30 elections across 10 different countries, said the domestic observer team brings together a good mix of professionals.

“I do have probably the most experience from the team when it comes to election observation and the running of elections, but we’ve got a very talented team of lawyers, bankers, professionals from all across the Island so I am very confident that we have an excellent team,” he said.

Impartiality is key

Roberts said the mission has already started its work and will be on the ground observing the campaigning. They are also liaising with the CPA as part of their training.

The team, which was vetted by a committee headed by Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, also signed their terms of reference upon appointment. These terms outline the relative roles and responsibilities of the government and the observers.

“What we are trying to do is a fairly ambitious programme, where we’re condensing and combining long-term observation, which is to say the campaign before Election Day and the administration after Election Day in tandem with the very important, crucial some might say, Election Day itself. We’re trying to do both to some extent so that we can have a bit of an overview,” Roberts said.

He acknowledged that there may be concerns in some quarters about a domestic observer team, but said there is no need for worry.

“The one message that I would like to get across is first of all, that the team is 100% impartial. We are being given the resources that we need, in time. We are not subject to any interference from any body of government or any organisation in the islands. And finally, I repeat this so often, we’re all about process. It’s just process,” Roberts said.

The team has established an office at the Government Administration Building.

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