The ‘Election Expert Mission’ from the British Islands and the Mediterranean Region has identified the lack of transparency in election campaign financing as one of the key areas for growth highlighted by their report, made public on Friday.

Governor Martyn Roper invited an independent team of international experts to observe Cayman's General Election from 6 - 20 April 2021
Governor Martyn Roper invited an independent team of international experts to observe Cayman’s General Election from 6-20 April 2021.

The team of six observers was invited to assess the electoral process by Governor Martyn Roper, the third time an invitation has been extended to the group.

Given the limitations on travel imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mission took place virtually and separately from the work done – and conclusions drawn – by the domestic observation team, also appointed by the Governor’s Office.

The group made 15 recommendations for how Cayman can improve its elections process.

Campaign financing

The “opaque” funding of election campaigning brought with it four out of the 15 recommendations for improvement.

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The observers cited issues such as the fact candidates and parties are not required to publish or submit expenditure before polling day as a concern, along with the fact campaign donations only need to be declared when they constitute more than $10,000.

The group noted that 35 days after the vote, candidates must submit details of “all payments made or received by them or on their behalf”, with the Supervisor of Elections then publishing a summary online.

The report notes there is no onus to verify the “completeness and accuracy” of the declarations.

It also cites a lack of legislation regarding the source of funds, noting: “This is at odds with international norms which limit donations to legal residents and registered companies trading in the country.”

The fact that candidate spending limit rules only apply to the campaign time between Nomination Day and Election Day was also flagged. Outside of the campaign period, candidates can spend a limitless amount, without having to report it.

The Compass asked the Auditor General whether she had been tasked with reviewing candidate declarations or whether a formal audit would be undertaken.

In response to those questions, Sue Winspear confirmed her office had been asked by Supervisor of Elections Wesley Howell to “conduct a review of 2021 election candidates financing returns with a view to proposing recommendations for improvement”.

She explained this would be similar to what was undertaken after the 2017 election at the suggestion of the governor at that time.

“I believe that the elections supervisor has implemented those recommendations that I made last time that can be done at an administrative level but will obviously be testing that through this review. The review cannot determine the accuracy of returns but can undertake a number of reasonableness checks,” Winspear told the Compass.

The right to vote and disenfranchisement: Is one vote in East End worth the same as one in Bodden Town East?

Another key area identified by the mission concerned the rights of all persons to vote, as well as ensuring all votes carry equal weight under Cayman’s ‘one man, one vote’ system.

Prisoners were highlighted as one key group who were potentially subject to unfair disenfranchisement.

The observers’ report notes that Cayman’s “blanket ban on voting for prisoners serving sentences exceeding 12 months’ imprisonment… is contrary to European jurisprudence”.

Similarly, the observers questioned the “equality in the weight of the vote”, pointing in particular to the unequal dispersement of voters across the 19 electoral districts.

In this year’s election, there were significant variances in the number of voters registered in each district.

“It is arguable therefore that electoral boundaries have not been drawn in compliance with the Constitution and international standards,” the mission’s report states.

The Bodden Town East constituency had the highest number of voters with 1,664 registered people eligible to have their say, compared to East End, which had fewer than half that number, or 769 registered voters.

The observers assessed this to mean that a registered voter in East End “had more than double the weight of a registered voter in Bodden Town East”.

In terms of how that translated into results, in Bodden Town East, former Health Minister Dwayne Seymour successfully held on to his seat, with 735 votes and a margin of victory of 263 votes over his challenger. In East End, the current Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs, Isaac Rankine, required just 348 votes to unseat the incumbent, by a margin of 44 votes.

In this year’s closely-fought contest, a handful of votes between independent candidates vying for office proved decisive in several significant races.

For example, McKeeva Bush emerged from the most-closely-fought contest of the night with a mere 27-vote margin over Mario Ebanks, to represent the district of West Bay West once again.

In the subsequent coalition-building, both the East End and West Bay West results proved significant to the eventual make-up of the PACT government.

Limitations

The mission acknowledge the obvious constraints posed by the pandemic in terms of the observers’ physical presence on island during the election campaign.

Similarly, the scope of the team ended on Election Day itself, meaning “the formation of the government was not within our remit”, stated observer Alex Folkes.

As a result, concerns that might underline the integrity of the election process, like the shadow party system, signposted by the domestic observers, and protests outside candidates’ houses, stoked by online threats, were not addressed in the report.

The group also noted that, to date, only one of the 21 recommendations made by the previous mission had been followed.

Following the report’s publication, Howell says the Elections Office will now undertake “a careful review of the 15 recommendations by the international mission and 14 recommendations put forward by domestic observers. This will be followed by the development and implementation of formal proposals for changes to the Constitution, Elections Act, internal policies and procedures”.

The 15 recommendations

The full report can be viewed here.

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