Consent Order issued in Redistricting Case

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: Bobby Lopez, Founder of BPM

by Marco Lopez

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Dec. 14, 2022

The redistricting case initiated by the Belize Peace Movement (BPM), which has been ongoing for over three years, has effectively culminated with what is being seen as a clear victory for the BPM. This week, despite previous efforts by the current administration to have the case discarded because of what the government claims is a process that’s already underway to commence redistricting, the BPM achieved what they sought: a way to monitor the process and ensure that it proceeds in a timely way, meets specific standards and reaches completion.

That became possible two weeks ago after the Supreme Court, presided over by Justice Chabot, issued a Consent Order which requires the Elections and Boundaries Commission to submit to the claimants (the BPM) by July 17, 2023, a report containing recommendations on how redistricting will be carried out across the country. Additionally, the recommendations from the Elections and Boundaries Commission must be used by the Office of the Attorney General as the basis for a draft bill (in line with section 90 of the Belize Constitution, to amend the first schedule for the Representation of the People Act) that is to be presented in the National Assembly by July 31 of next year.

The Consent Order has thus, in effect, established a sort of monitoring mechanism to ensure that key parts of the redistricting process are completed by specific deadlines. Additionally, the parties have agreed to consult the guidelines set out in the expert witness report of Sean Trende. The claim brought by the BPM has thus been stayed at the current time.

“This is the end of the beginning, but certainly not the beginning of the end, because from now until July 2023, claimants, the media, and the people of Belize must remain vigilant. We cannot let our guards down. We must hold the Government of Belize and the Elections and Boundaries Commission in particular to what they have agreed to do,” Arthur Saldivar, attorney for the BPM, stated in a Zoom conference held on Tuesday morning.

As mentioned earlier, the case was brought prior to the 2020 general elections by members of the Belize Peace Movement —10 claimants in total – against the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Elections and Boundaries Commission, with the goal of ensuring equal distribution of voters across electoral divisions in Belize, as required by the Belize Constitution, which states that constituencies should “have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons eligible to vote.” 

Subsequently, Lord Michael Ashcroft entered the claim as an interested party, and he provided funding that made it possible for input to be submitted by an expert witness, who drafted a report that detailed the specific deviations in each constituency from the average number of voters that should be in each division — in other words, measuring the degree of what is referred to as “malapportionment” in the distribution of voters and quantifying its impact on the value of each vote, which should be equal across divisions.

The report concluded that the malapportionment across divisions is so severe that it “debases the weight of votes”, making elections held with the current electoral map “undemocratic.” 

The report further contextualizes how skewed electoral representation is in the country by comparing the variations in the number of voters in different Belizean divisions to the types of variations in other countries. In a report dated October 14, 2020, the expert witness noted, “The degree of malapportionment present in Belize far exceeds any threshold suggested in other countries or by international organizations. .. For example, an elector in… Fort George… casts a vote that has five times the value of the vote cast by an elector in the Stann Creek West electoral division. Using the 10% deviation standard suggested by international organizations, only four of Belize’s current electoral divisions are not severely malapportioned… 71% of Belize’s electoral divisions are severely malapportioned… Malapportionment is particularly pronounced in the Belize District, where the most populous division (Belize Rural South) is 4.5 times the population of Fort George..”

“The overall deviation from the ideal population in Belize District is 152%,” the report further states. Ideally, in a more evenly distributed voter landscape, there would be around 5,289 votes in each division, if 31 divisions remained and there was a voting population of 163,974 registered electors, according to the expert report. The reports state that in every district except Toledo, the combined within-district deviation between the smallest grouping of voters per division and the largest exceeds 29% — well over the 10% to 15% recommended maximum. 

The Belize Peace Movement has noted that this has been the case since 2005, and is of the opinion that those prior elections were all held illegally. The court did not issue any declaration indicating such a stance, but instead ordered the current administration to utilize the expert witness report, which includes recommendations for re-drawing the electoral boundaries to ensure an ideal number of voters within each division. As just noted, according to international standards, the maximum deviation should not exceed 10 to 15%.

The expert witness concluded that the severe malapportionment was not confined to a particular area and could not be remedied by minor fixes in the electoral map, and thus outlined three alternate maps which could be utilized to achieve equitable distribution of the voting population across the divisions, or at least bring the current distribution in line with international standards.  

The first map was aimed at strictly redistributing voters among divisions. That map, noted the report, would yield divisions with minimal deviations from the ideal number of voters, but “pays little attention to the consideration other than population equality. “ The second map, which is considered the best option, reduces the number of divisions in the Belize District by 4, resulting in a total of 9 constituencies in that portion of the country, while Cayo would be given 8 divisions. 

“This map preserves the Queen Square, Lake Independence, Caribbean Shores, Port Loyola, Collet, and Fort George Division, although the latter division will have a portion of Ambergris Caye added to it under this map. A new division is created based around Ladyville, “ clause 151 of the expert report states. 

The report further states that Belmopan “cannot remain [a] single division,” and must be divided into two parts. The population growth in western Cayo was also taken into consideration in the drawing of this map, with Benque Viejo, San Ignacio, Santa Elena all receiving their own divisions. 

“Besides relatively slight malapportionment, a major advantage of this map is that the Belize City divisions are largely over-apportioned, while the Cayo divisions are under-apportioned. This means over time, as the population continues to shift from Belize City to the other districts, the malapportionment on this map should improve,” clause 155 of the report states. 

It states that map 2 is an “overall strong map”, yet the difference between the smallest and largest division is 25.47%. He calls this an “unfortunate” inevitability. 

The third map proposed is the minimum change map, which, according to the expert witness, would greatly reduce the current malapportionment without greatly upsetting the political dynamic of the country. The 10 divisions in Belize would be retained and the total number of divisions in Cayo would be 7 in this proposed configuration. Overall, however, the malapportionment across divisions would be greater than what would result if any of the two other maps were used as a basis for redistricting. With the use of the third map, the Cayo District divisions would be overpopulated while those in Belize would be underpopulated.

The expert recommended against the use of map 3, “except as a stopgap measure to allow the legislature more time to address the malapportionment present under Belize’s current divisions.” 

The report states that a key point is that all three maps suggested are superior to the existing map, and “bring Belize more closely in line with international standards of democracy.” It goes on to state that “an election held under these maps could be considered free and democratic, while an election held under the existing maps would be much more difficult to be labeled as such.”   

An enormous amount of work will thus have to be undertaken by the Elections and Boundaries Commission in order to meet the mid- 2023 deadline laid out in the Supreme Court’s Consent Order, but a Redistricting Task Force was instituted in February of this year by the government of Belize that is working on gathering information in order to carry out the redistricting process. While the task force’s chairperson has said that the body has nothing to do with the case, the Consent Order handed down by Justice Chabot states clearly that the parties have agreed to follow the guidelines of the expert witness report. 

Of note, a former member of that task force, Martin Aldana, had removed himself from that body via a public resignation, citing politicization of the process. There was also much controversy surrounding the appointment of Collet Montejo, a PUP senator, as the supervisor of all fieldwork for the task force. The attorney for the BPM, Arthur Saldivar, believes that the task force has no place in the process and calls it illegal.

“Ultimately, what is being done presently with this task force, is a blatant attempt to gerrymander, which is illegal, mind you,” Saldivar said.