“To erase St Peter’s is to inflict a wrong, through gerrymandering, on the people of St Peter’s and on Antigua and Barbuda”
Asot Michael, Antigua Labour Party (ALP), Member of Parliament for the St. Peter Constituency (2013)
In the last two decades most English speaking countries in the Caribbean have began to discuss the need of renewing their electoral geography.1 Many of them recently began administrative processes to renew their electoral boundaries given the significant population imbalance across their constituencies.2 These processes have become extremely politicized and have generated important political tensions in the region because, in a context where countries have 50, 000 habitants and parliaments have only 14 seats, moving 20 voters –literally– from one constituency to another may end up altering the balance of power in parliament. It is not uncommon for candidates in countries like St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, or Jamaica to loose elections in their constituencies for less than 50 votes.3
In this article I explain the main problems faced by Caribbean countries in the process of renewing their electoral cartography. Based on the case of St. Kitts and Nevis, I illustrate how boundary delimitation has significantly affected the interaction between political parties in the region. I conclude with some recommendations that could be considered by courts, legislative bodies, electoral management bodies, constituency boundary commissions, and political parties to decrease the tensions generated by a naturally technical and complex process.
Boundary Delimitation, Opaqueness and Polarization
Constituency boundary delimitation is one of the most influential processes shaping political representation. In most countries, its main purpose is to rebalance the number of habitants across constituencies in order to guarantee the principle of “one man, one vote.”4 Boundary delimitation usually takes place after a census has been conducted and most constitutional frameworks consider additional criteria that foster good governance. These may include respect for administrative boundaries or those that safeguard the representation of specific racial, ethnic and religious communities of interest.
Electoral mapping is complex process that, by its nature, tends to become extremely controversial. There are over 150 countries that use geographical electoral delimitation for substantial portions of their elections.5 Each country has its own specific requirements. In most cases, districts must abide by constitutional requirements of equal population and minority representation, and also consider additional criteria such as: geometric compactness, geographical features, contiguity, population density, rural areas, means of communication or electoral competitiveness.
In many Caribbean countries the delimitation of electoral boundaries has become an extremely politicized issue in recent years because: 1) constituencies have not been updated in decades, despite having a significant population imbalance; 2) updating constituency boundaries in the Caribbean has a significant impact compared to other countries in Latin America or other regions around the globe. This is particularly true for countries with parliaments that have less than 30 seats; 3) these processes are usually characterized by high levels of opacity; 4) there is scarce –or limited– information to evaluate the changes proposed to the electoral geography; and 5) there is a lack of accountability surrounding these processes in most Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) or Boundary Commissions (BCs) in the region.
In most Caribbean countries information is “public,” but it is not made available. EMBs or BCs in charge of conducting boundary delimitation do not offer manageable formats to access information or they simply do not distribute it. In the case of St. Kitts and Nevis, for instance, the Constituency Boundary Commission (CBC) is formed by five members: two are designated by the majority, two by the opposition, and it is presided by a commissioner proposed by the Prime Minister. During the most recent boundary delimitation exercise carried out in 2013, the two opposition members of the CBC claimed that they were not able to access electoral maps to compare and evaluate the effects of the new constituencies until three days before the Final Report of the CBC was presented in Parliament.6 Another problem faced by most Caribbean countries is the lack of resources to supervise, develop and implement boundary delimitation processes. St. Kitts and Nevis CBC has no budget to sustain itself and, given that it is not a permanent institution, it has no capacity to maintain its own records, hire its own staff, or have access to mapping technology that allows the commission to independently carry out its duties. As a consequence of such environment, new proposed plans are usually contested by the opposition and challenged in court.7
Given the complex and technical nature of boundary delimitation processes, these issues are usually conceived as secondary problems in the political realm. However, they have huge implication for democratic stability. The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding boundary delimitation processes: a) severely affects the credibility that people and political parties have in electoral administration; b) eradicates the levels of trust in subsequent stages of an election; and c) affects the configuration of the Legislative Branch. In a country of 50,000 inhabitants that has a parliament of only 14 seats (where 11 members are elected in single member majority districts and 3 are appointed by the Governor General), winning a single constituency is crucial for a party to sustain its majority status. A shift of 20 inhabitants from one constituency to another in a boundary delimitation process can rapidly change the balance of power.8
In order to minimize the politization of boundary delimitation processes, and for submitted plans to be properly evaluated by all parties, it is necessary to ensure that there is clarity surrounding all the criteria and phases involved in the redistricting process. Furthermore, all information used in the delimitation process must be available to the public. Having full access to geographic and demographic data used by authorities during the delimitation process, as well as to the technical procedures and mapping software, ensures that constituencies are objectively evaluated and everyone is able to determine if they satisfy legal requirements. Restricting access to information creates the ideal conditions for polarization and endangers the credibility of elections.9
A Closer Look at Boundary Delimitation in the Caribbean: The Case of St. Kitts and Nevis
Article 50 of the Constitution establishes that the Constituency Boundaries Commission (CBC) is in charge of “reviewing the number and boundaries of the constituencies into which Saint Christopher and Nevis is divided.” It is comprised of two commissioners representing the opposition, two commissioners representing the majority government, and a Chairman appointed by the Governor General form the CBC. Additionally, Schedule 2 of the Constitution establishes that:
“All constituencies should contain as nearly equal numbers of inhabitants as appears to the Constituency Boundaries Commission to be reasonably practicable but the Commission may depart from this rule to such extent as it considers expedient to take account of the following factors, that is to say: a) the requirements of rule 1 and the differences in the density of the populations in the respective islands of Saint Christopher and Nevis; b) the need to ensure adequate representation of sparsely populated rural areas; c) the means of communication; d) geographical features; and e) existing administrative boundaries.”10
The constitution does not describe precisely what “nearly as equal numbers” means or how to ponder and evaluate the different criteria that are mentioned. However, and as in most countries around the globe, the CBC has the capacity to formulate the necessary procedures and interpret the constitution in order to renew its constituencies. Unfortunately, the institutional records, procedures and guidelines used by the CBC are not available to the public. This has been one of the major weaknesses and one of the main reasons explaining the high levels of politization around boundary delimitation in St. Kitts and in other Caribbean countries.
St. Kitts and Nevis has 11 single member majority constituencies (8 in St. Kitts and 3 in Nevis) that were established in 1983, following the country’s independence. But, it was not until 2009 that the Constituency Boundaries Commission made a first attempt to revise the electoral geography. Despite both of the two main parties —The Saint Kitts and Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) led by Dr. Denzil Douglas and the People´s Action Movement (PAM)— have alternated in power and have held a majority status in parliament, boundary delimitation has become one of the most politicized issues in the country and one of the main sources of confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties during the last decade.
The SKNLP has been actively promoting the renewal of electoral boundaries, but the PAM has not agreed on the procedures and criteria established by the CBC, so they have been actively defending the status quo.11 In 2009, the opposition parties (led by PAM) successfully challenged the CBC Report. As a result, the original constituencies delimited in the early 1980s had to be used in the 2010 general election. In December of 2012, a second Constituency Boundaries Commission was constituted to renew the electoral cartography. The CBC produced a report in 2013, but opposition parties also challenged it in court. Two years later, in January of 2015, the CBC produced a third report, but it was challenged once again by the opposition.
The different constituency delimitation processes in St. Kitts and Nevis have been challenged and subject to judicial review in national, regional and international courts, such as the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and the Privy Council. This has been due to procedural and technical disagreements between the parties; particularly with regard to how procedures and criteria have been used, interpreted, and implemented by the CBC. Additionally, these processes are more likely to become politicized when the boundary commission is a non-technical temporary institution formed by partisan members coming from parliament.12
In the context of the recent 2015 general election, the Privy Council —a London based court that has the final word on this matter— rejected the new constituency map and stipulated that elections should take place using the old constituency boundaries drawn back in the early 1980s. The Privy Council also ruled that the proclamation of the new constituency boundaries (voted by parliament in January 2015), which was challenged by members of the opposition, should be returned for consideration of the St. Kitts and Nevis High Court. The delays caused by the judicial process regarding boundary delimitation —the Privy Council ruled on February 12, 2015, only three days before the general elections took place— significantly affected the different stages of the electoral process. The printing of ballots, for instance, had to be postponed and began only three days before the election took place.
The boundaries established in 1983 have been the basis for electing representatives over two decades and have had a major effect on the under- and over-representation of members of parliament, as well as on the levels of malapportionment in the legislature.13 In repeated times, international organizations like the Organization of American States have emphasized the urgency of renewing St. Kitts and Nevis’ constituency boundaries based on the principle of equal representation (“one man, on vote”).
Despite the attempt to renew the electoral boundaries in St. Kitts and Nevis in 2013 and 2015, procedures were opaque and there was no clarity in the criteria and methods that were being used by the CBC. Neither the timeline that was to be followed, nor how the different criteria that were considered were publicly available. It is within this context that many countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean could benefit enormously form moving towards an institutional policy of open data, where information is not only public, but it is made available in a timely manner and with accessible formats.14 In the following lines, I offer a framework that could be used by institutions in charge of boundary delimitation in order to promote more transparent, accountable and participatory processes.
Transparency, Accountability and Open Data in Constituency Delimitation
1. Transparency and Accountability. Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) or Constituency Boundaries Commissions (CBCs) must operate with complete transparency and give the public –and all interested parties– continuous access to all proposed plans, data, analyses, software tools, and records of public input. This measure will offer certainty to the different participants involved in the process by providing them with information that will allow them to evaluate, replicate, compare, observe, and follow different plans in a public context. It also allows citizens, vulnerable groups, communities, local authorities and political parties to manifest their interests.
2. Access to Information. EMBs or CBCs must create multiple channels for public input, and make online tools widely accessible to let members of the public and interested actors design, compare, and comment upon redistricting plans. The CBC should have its own website where it can provide information related to the legal requirements, criteria and stages of the process, as well as upload the original and final plans approved by the commission.
3. Clear Procedures, Guidelines and Criteria. The EMBs or CBCs should initially approve all the procedures, guidelines and criteria that will be used during the constituency delimitation process. This will force the EMBs or CBCs to adopt and follow clear and consistent boundary delimitation criteria, procedures and rules. This will also give the authorities the opportunity to receive feedback from the community and mapping proposals that could improve their own scenarios (based on their own criteria). Additionally, it will provide an objective framework to evaluate different proposals that are submitted by different political representatives or citizens during the consultation process. The EMBs or CBCs should make fair judgments using all socially relevant information considered in the law and in its own regulations.
4. Establishing a Permanent EMB or CBC with Financial Independence. The EMBs or CBCs must receive funding free from legislative manipulation and should be able to set up permanent staff in order to have technical expertise, analyze public input, and maintain institutional records. This will allow the EMBs or CBCs to have better information regarding local and community interests throughout the country. It will also allow authorities to be aware of social needs at different levels (enumeration districts, communities, villages, and parishes).
5. Institutional Autonomy of the EMB or CBC. Although it is fundamental that political parties and members of parliament have full access to the information of the boundary delimitation process before, during and after constituency delimitation takes place, it is key that the EMBs or CBCs formed by non-partisan members have the necessary technical expertise to supervise and review such a legally and technically complex process. Once a plan is finalized and approved by the EMB or CBC, it should not be subject to legislative veto or modification.
1 The author specializes on boundary delimitation processes in Latin America and the Caribbean. The contents and views expressed in this article, as well as any mistake, are the sole responsibility of the author. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla (British overseas territory), Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Belize, Suriname, and St. Vincent.
3 St. Kitts and Nevis, for instance, has only 54,191 habitants and its parliament has 11 seats for elected MPs and 3 seats for appointed senators. For more information on Commonwealth Caribbean elections see: Emmanuel, Patrick. 1993. Governance and Democracy in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Cave Hill: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.
4 The principle of equal representation refers to the principle by which every elected representative of the legislature represents the same –or a proportional– number of habitants.
5 Handley, Lisa, and Bernard Grofman, eds. 2008. Redistricting in comparative perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
6 Interview of the author with Mr. Vincent Byron, Senator and Member of the Constituency Boundary Commission of St. Kitts and Nevis (February 2015).
7 Trelles, A., & Martínez, D. 2012. “Lessons for California from Mexcio’s Redistricting Experience.” Política y Gobierno, 19(2), 199-241.
8 In a country like St. Kitts and Nevis, each constituency has approximately 4,500 habitants. In the 2010 election, some constituencies were lost by less than 50 votes.
9 Trelles, Alejandro, Micah Altman, Eric Magar and Michael P. McDonald. 2016. “Open Data, Transparency, and Redistricting in Mexico,” Política y Gobierno, CIDE, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, May 2016 and Altman Micah, Michael P. McDonald. 2012. “Redistricting Principles for the Twenty-First Century.” Case-Western Law Review[Internet]; 62:1–26.
10 The Saint Christopher and Nevis Constitution Order (1983).
11 Members of the opposition have constantly questioned the autonomy of the CBC and accused the government of trying to “gerrymander”. In 2013, members of PAM argued that the Chairman of the CBC, Mr. Peter Jenkins, was biased in favor of the majority party and had close ties with the SKNLP, but this allegation was dismissed by the St. Kitts and Nevis High Court.
12 Constituency Boundary Commission Reports and Court Cases of 2009, 2013, and 2015.
13 The constituencies established in 1983 were used to elect representatives for the 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, 2004, 2010, and 2015 general elections. Over time, the distortion of the population balance between constituencies creates a context where the percentage of votes obtained by each party is not proportional to the number of seats in parliament (e.g. receiving 40 percent of the vote and having 60 percent of the seats in the legislature).
14 Trelles, Alejandro, Micah Altman, Eric Magar and Michael P. McDonald. 2016. “Open Data, Transparency, and Redistricting in Mexico,” Política y Gobierno, CIDE, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, May 2016