Election observers have raised concerns in their report on this year’s general election about candidates who ran as independents but who had unannounced political affiliations, forming what the observers described as a “shadow party system”.
The current PACT government is made up mostly of independents who joined forces either before or after the election.
The observers, in their report on the 2021 general election, pointed out that although only two groups were registered as political parties – the Progressives and Ezzard Miller’s People’s Party – during the 2021 election, there existed five or possibly six political ‘teams’.
“We also became aware of a group of independent candidates who were apparently covertly aligned,” the report said.
The observers said such a “shadow party system” could lead to a lack of accountability from candidates who do not disclose their allegiances and alliances; a greater likelihood that the electorate will vote for an individual rather than a set of declared principles or policies; and a lack of understanding of the candidates’ position on issues.
They added that elected members could become “untethered by their pre-election promises” and not be held accountable for them, “leaving them free to abandon their commitments in the pursuit of office”.
The observers said electors have a right to know a candidate’s political affiliations so that they can evaluate a group’s candidates on clearly stated policies and platforms.
The election monitors also noted that concerns had been raised over a lack of financial transparency, with political financing apparently taking place before the regulated period covering the campaign.
“It is very possible that significant funding from individual wealthy Caymanians may distort the integrity of the campaign and damage confidence in the electoral process,” the report stated. “Questions were asked about organisations who may have secretly funded candidates and, after the election, there were many claims about financial incentives offered to elected members in exchange for their political support in forming the Government.”
However, the observers said it was beyond their resources to recommend any specific financial structure; but it was clear that political financing needed comprehensive reform.
“A register of political donations made and received would be a first step. A framework for lobbying and lobbyists seems appropriate and it may be worth considering the role of third-party financing,” they noted.
They also recommended that elected members’ register of interests be made available to the public online.
Presence of candidates during voting
The observers also addressed the presence of candidates at polling stations and in people’s homes during mobile voting.
Hadleigh Roberts, who headed the observation team, said at a press briefing on Monday, that some candidates had “frequently tested the limits of the no-campaigning rule”.
On polling day, the observers said, most notably in George Town North, West Bay South and West Bay Central, “a competition emerged where candidates felt the need to make their presence increasingly known”, and there were various complaints about the location of campaign tents close to, but still outside, the exclusion zone.
Electors also raised objections to candidates being present for lengthy periods of time, greeting people and ‘checking in’ on their agents within the exclusion zone.
The observers said a 15-minute rule under section 56 of the Elections Act “was not particularly helpful in keeping candidates in check because they were able to hover between polling stations”.
As a result, the observers are recommending that candidates not be allowed within the polling station area unless they are there to cast their own ballot, and once they have voted, they should leave the area promptly.
The observers said they also were concerned that candidates accompanied the mobile ballot boxes into the homes of extremely vulnerable electors.
“The Elections Office rightly attempted to discourage this practice but acknowledged that it was permitted under the law,” the report stated. “In the absence of a body (such as the Political Ombudsman) to set guidelines about this issue, candidates must remember their duty to respect the needs of vulnerable electors and enter into a ‘truce’ with other candidates not to enter individuals’ homes.
“Best practice, as far as it is necessary at all, would be to send a representative to follow the box without entering a private residence.”
Observers said they had been made aware of “several allegations, rumours and complaints about vote-buying”, but that they “could not conclude confidently whether vote buying did or did not take place”.
However, they noted that the single-member district system, the small size of geographical districts, the size of Cayman’s voting population and the first-past-the-post electoral system made it easier for candidates “to entrench themselves politically and economically”.
“The very narrow margin of victory in most districts is typically a benefit to an electoral system because it makes seats competitive, but when this margin can amount to as few as 15 votes, it becomes very easy to influence enough electors to make a material change to the outcome. These factors, in addition to local legends of past practices, set alight by social media, go a long way to explain vote-buying accusations,” the observers said.
They added that a few candidates had claimed that they received approaches from electors expecting to receive inducements to vote.
The observers called for a halt to the practice of serially numbering ballots and electors’ registration numbers on counterfoils, which they said had the potential to impact the secrecy of electors’ votes.
“If necessary, additional security marks may be printed on the ballot and counterfoil (e.g. watermark) to guarantee integrity and authenticity, but not relate to traceability to an electors,” they said in the report.
Concerns over police presence
In their report, the observers noted that police officers had entered electors’ homes or been present on their property during mobile polling, saying, “This raises multiple concerns about an elector’s human rights. It also raises the question of what would happen if a police officer saw something in the elector’s home and used that information against them.”
While police officers are tasked to protect ballot boxes, three polling staffers and a field officer are also usually present to maintain the integrity of the ballot box.
The observers said the best practice was seen on Cayman Brac, where police officers escorted the box while in transit but remained outside the house.
The monitors also raised the issue of police presence at polling stations, saying it was “generally greater than necessary”, and that officers were positioned inconsistently in and around polling stations.
“In some particularly concerning cases, observers saw police officers seated directly next to a ballot box,” they said.
They recommended that, in future, police presence on polling days should be minimised within the exclusion zone and no police officer should be permitted to enter a polling station room or tent, unless at the request of the presiding officer or in an emergency.
Counting mobile ballots
The election observers commended a last-minute change by Cabinet that allowed mobile and postal votes to be counted with ballots cast on polling day.
Previously, mobile and postal ballots were counted separately and could be identified as such, meaning that in several cases, due to the small number of ballots inside some of mobile or postal boxes – sometimes fewer than 10 – the potential for identifying voters’ choices was increased.
“The process was changed by Cabinet a few days before Polling Day to allow postal and mobile station ballots to be mixed with ballots in Polling Day boxes prior to the start of any count so that agents, candidates and others present at the count would not be able to determine how a particular ballot was cast via mobile and postal voting. The Elections Office fought for this amendment which improved the ability to keep the ballot secret.
“We strongly commend this change; however, changes to election-related rules should generally not be made such a short time before Polling Day,” the observers stated.
As this year’s election was the first since Cayman introduced a Data Protection Law in 2019, the observers examined the impact of data protection on the election process.
They recommended that the Electors List, currently visible on the Elections Office website, ought not to be publicly available, but should only be shared by elections officials, candidates and their teams, for example.
“There is no justifiable need, however, to publish the complete list, by district, freely and publicly. Those who need to know can have access to the information, presuming reasonable confidentiality measures are taken,” they said.
They also questioned why, at polling stations on Election Day, it was necessary for each elector’s name, address, occupation and voter number to be loudly announced.
“This practice arises so that the candidates’ agents may know or challenge the identity of the voter. Yet, all of this information need not be announced so publicly because name and voter number may be sufficient,” they said, and recommended that new procedures be developed so as to accommodate the agents’ right to know who is voting, without breaching privacy principles.
And while they found that it was reasonable to include voters’ names and addresses in the Electors List, the inclusion of the voters’ occupations were not relevant to the voting process and “probably” contravened the Data Protection Law.
“An elector’s occupation ought not to be gathered, recorded, or published in any way,” they said.
The observers also recommended the establishment of a ‘Political Ombudsman’ to investigate election-related complaints and allegations of wrongdoing.
Between elections, that office could work on developing guidelines “that are politically realistic and more intuitive than elections legislation,” while during election season, its leading role would be to deal with disputes and complaints.
They said there was an “evident appetite” in Cayman for a body or organisation to “play the role of political referee”.
It has been a practice in Cayman for international election observers to monitor the general election, but this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was not possible for monitors from overseas to visit Cayman, so Governor Martyn Roper appointed nine domestic observers instead. These nine were Hadleigh Roberts, Sidney Ebanks, Mark Hilton, Margott Lares Alfonzo, Colford Scott, Olivaire Watler, Andrea Williams, Ian Whan Tong and Trecate Yong, with Yves Martel and Bryan Plug as reserve observers.
Roberts, speaking at Monday’s press briefing, said the observers’ evaluation of the 2021 general election was that it was “credible and legitimate, resulting as it did in an orderly transition from one government to the next”.
A report from international observers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, who carried out remote monitoring of the election, will be published in the second half of June.