Saturday, November 21, 2009

Elections - 5. At-Large Seats

We frequently hear the question asked today, Why can’t we have at-large seats?  The fact is we don’t have “at-large” voting in Anguilla.  So, what is the law on at-large seats?
Basically, voting “at-large” means voting which is not limited to the residents of a particular constituency, but where all the residents of the country have a say in the election of some if not all the representatives.  In Anguilla there are no at-large seats.  In the BVI some of the seats are at-large, and other seats of the BVI House of Assembly are elected by the District or Constituency.  In Montserrat, by comparison, all the seats in the Legislative Assembly are elected at-large. 
Note that voting “at-large” is not the same thing as voting for a “slate”.  In some countries, each party puts up a slate of candidates, with the head of the party and other senior members at the head of the list.  You do not vote for an individual, but for the slate.  If the party wins three-quarters of the vote, then the members at the head of the list who constitute three-quarters of the membership of the House are elected.  This system does not exist in our British Overseas Territories in the West Indies. 
The advantages of voting at-large far outweigh any disadvantages.  The advantages include that representatives represent the interests of the whole country, not of a tiny constituency, which in the case of Anguilla can consist of as few as 500-600 voters.  The opportunity to win an election by buying votes increases the smaller the constituency.  A wealthy candidate can buy the votes of a dozen influential voters in his or her constituency, and win the election with their support.  If the same candidate had to fact the entire country, buying votes would be much more problematic.  A second advantage is that a candidate elected at-large is more likely to have the interests of the entire country at heart, not just the interests of a narrow part of the community.  Pork-barrel politics is less likely to prevail in a system where at-large voting exists.  So, how does at-large voting work in the West Indirs?
Let us look at Montserrat first.  Section 48 of the Montserrat Constitution provides for the Legislative Assembly of Montserrat.  All it says is as follows:
48.—(1) The Legislative Assembly shall consist of nine elected members and two ex officio members, namely the Attorney-General and the Financial Secretary.
The Montserrat Constitution does not say how representatives are to be elected.  It leaves that to be set out in the elections statute.  The only constitutional restriction is that there shall be exactly nine (9) elected members, unless the constitutional provision for increasing the number of representatives is followed.  Under the Montserrat elections statute, there are no districts or constituencies.  Everyone who is a registered voter in Montserrat gets to vote for nine (9) candidates.  If there are twenty (20) candidates, the nine (9) candidates with the highest votes are elected. 
I think we all know the reason for that system being preferred in Montserrat.  After the cataclysmic eruption of 1994, which devastated one half of the island, many of the citizens left to reside in other parts of the world.  Those who remained were obliged to take up residence in the northern half of the island.  They were prohibited by law from residing in the southern part of the island considered too dangerous by the authorities.  They hope this dislocation is temporary, and they will one day be able to return to their homes in the southern half of the island.  But, continuing to vote by district constituency was obviously impossible.  Hence the change of the voting system to one that is entirely at-large.
In the BVI, the Constitution of The Virgin Islands provides for thirteen (13) elected Members of the House of Assembly.  Section 64 makes specific provision for how these 13 members are to be elected.  It reads:
64.—(1) The elected members of the House of Assembly shall be persons qualified for election in accordance with this Constitution and, subject to this Constitution, shall be elected in the manner provided by or under any law for the time being in force in the Virgin Islands.
(2) Subject to section 63(2), for the purposes of elections the Virgin Islands—
(a) shall be a single electoral district and shall return four members to the House of Assembly; and
(b) shall also be divided into nine electoral districts in such manner as may be provided by or under any law for the time being in force in the Virgin Islands, and each such district shall return one member to the House of Assembly.
Thus, section 64 of The Virgin Islands Constitution provides that (until it is changed in the manner provided by the Constitution” nine (9) of the representatives are elected to represent one of the nine (9) electoral districts, and four (4) of them are elected at-large.  That means that in a general election, each voter gets to cast five (5) votes.  First, he or she votes for his or her constituency candidate, and, second, selects four (4) of the candidates who are running at-large.  The four (4) at-large candidates who win the most votes are declared elected. 
You will have realized that The Virgin Islands Constitution specifically provide for voting at-large, but not the Constitution of Montserrat.  The Constitution of Montserrat left that matter to be set out in the elections statute of Montserrat.  What, then, about the Constitution of Anguilla?  Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution of Anguilla provides for our House of Assembly.  It reads:
35. (1) There shall be a House of Assembly for Anguilla.
(2) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Assembly shall consist of—
(a) the Speaker;
(b) two ex-officio members, namely the Attorney-General and the Deputy Governor;
(c) not less than seven members elected in the manner provided by law; . . .
A reading of section 35 immediately reveals that our Constitution, like that of Montserrat, does not make any reference to constituencies or electoral districts or voting at-large.  All it says is that not less than seven (7) members of the House of Assembly are to be elected in the manner provided by law.  The consequence is clear.  The Anguilla House of Assembly is free (after public discussion, and the arrival at a consensus among the political parties) to amend the Anguilla Elections Act to provide for an increase in the number of elected representatives.  Any amending law may at the same time provide for some of them to be elected at-large.  There is no constitutional provision that says that representatives in the Anguilla House of Assembly must all come from electoral districts or constituencies.
We have good precedents we can follow in the shape of the Virgin Islands Elections Act, and the Montserrat Elections Act.  All it takes is the political will to recognise that the Anguilla people are severely underrepresented in the House of Assembly.  Montserrat with a population of less than 6,000 has nine (9) representatives, while Anguilla has only seven (7).  We deserve to have a larger House. 
The undoubted advantages that flow from membership at-large should be enjoyed in Anguilla as it is in The Virgin Islands and in Montserrat.  And, in my opinion, what makes it sweeter is that we do not need to go to London to have the Constitution amended.  Representation in the Anguilla House of Assembly is entirely a local issue, which does not concern the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so long as any change is made with the consent of the Anguillian people demonstrated in one or more of the traditional ways.