Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Reform - the Rocky Road Ahead

States members will be allowed to sit on Jersey's new electoral commission when it is up and running. After nearly four hours of debate, politicians voted against St Saviour Deputy Roy le Herissier's amendment to exclude them from the reform group. Deputy le Hérissier wanted to keep members out of the committee so it could be truly independent. He lost the debate with 25 members voting against his change to 22 in favour. (1)

So the Commission will no longer be independent. Can it come up with a result that is acceptable to the States members? Clearly, if those who voted for it are in favour of the proposals, then it can. But the question is how public consensus will be sought?

The most likely outcome of the removal of independence will be the following:

a) Token consultation. The public will have the opportunity for a public consultation, but there will be no referendum on the final outcome. The consensus will be one approved by the States, and the public will have no part in the final decision making process. This is tokenism, where a crust falls from the table of the rich man, so that the poor man can feel as though he participates in the meal. There should be a real engagement with the public, and a chance for the public to vote on proposals. It is time that the referendum be used for serious purposes rather than idiotic tinkering with time systems that never was going to happen.

b) Clothier style Uniformity. One reason why the Harwood report did so much better in Guernsey than Clothier in Jersey was that it was like a multiple choice questionnaire. Where there were several options possible, all of which would help reform the States of Guernsey, a preferred one was suggested, but alternatives were given.

Clothier presented a single "take it or leave it" approach, which not surprisingly failed to be implemented. For instance, whether the Constables remain or are left out can remain an option to be voted upon, and not predetermined with the proposals brought to the States.

c) The Ghost of Clothier. Just as the devil can cite scripture for his purposes, as the saying goes, and fundamentalists use selective proof texts from scripture to support their case, expect the removal of the Senators to be justified by reference to the Clothier report, but the removal of the Constables (also in the Clothier report) to be neatly glossed over. Clothier was like a failed attempt at cloning; it gave us a man with only half a brain. It is time to ditch Clothier as a flawed attempt to impose a uniform regime, and start afresh.

d) The worst of all possible worlds? Perhaps the introduction of election deposits will rear its ugly head again, and the Senators will be removed. A stability will be achieved, but it will be the stability that comes because the majority of voters are excluded from voting on most politicians as a result, and are thereby rendered impotent to vote for change.

One scenario is that the Deputies remain more or less with small constituencies that follow Parish boundaries, rather than clustering together in 4 or 5 larger constituencies. Then we can expect Chief Ministers and Ministers who have the support of a mandate of 1/33 of the electorate, rather than Island wise, and who - unlike Putin in Russia, or Obama in America - continue in office more or less indefinitely, because there are no restrictions on the number of terms of office.

After all, if Frank Walker or Terry Le Sueur had a safe Deputies seat in a smaller Parish, would they have needed to stand down rather than being trounced (as I am sure would have been the case) if they stood as Senators?

Incidentally, no one has raised the term of office of Chief Minister, and isn't this a golden opportunity to do so?

There are two things which any reform of the States needs to watch, which can mean that there is an apparent reform, without any substantial change possible in the States because of an increase in potential voter representation.

Both of these can be seen in America:

Rotten Boroughs

American State legislatures, which in this way scarcely vary from many other legislatures elsewhere, have often relied upon rotten boroughs and gerrymandering to preserve the existing proportions of seats or to increase the proportion of seats held by a single party or faction. Rotten boroughs are historical accidents that give disproportionate weight to the votes of a thinly populated district in relation to a thickly populated one, despite a rule requiring reapportionment. (2)

If Deputies districts are not increased enough, Parishes like St Mary will end up as "rotten borough"; as it stands it has a disproportionate vote in the States. People in such small districts can remain there for years, as the size of the district means any credible opposition is unlikely.


The usual objective of a gerrymander is to maximize the number of districts returning safe majorities for the apportioning group and to minimize the number of districts returning safe majorities for the opposition party or faction. The gerrymandering group seeks to draw district boundaries in a way that will concentrate its opponents' votes in as few districts as possible and will spread its own dependable majorities over as many districts as possible; or it seeks to disperse the majorities of its opponents and gather together its own partisans to create new majorities. (2)

The drawing up of borders if districts are made larger for Deputies may mean that they are grouped so as to disenfranchise the town in favour of the country. It is notable how in the Senatorial elections, there is an "election bounce" so that some candidates get more votes when the town districts cast their vote, and this can make a substantial difference. This is because the spread of different kinds of voters for Senatorials is far wider than for a smaller districts.

If more urban but rural districts such as St Brelade are combined with St Ouen and St Peter, this will lead to a wider spread of different kinds voters than, for instance, if St Brelade is one district, and St Ouen, St Peter and St Mary is another. There are possibilities for gerrymandering there, and it must be carefully guarded against.

Questions to Consider

Given a need for constituencies to have wider boundaries, what balance should be struck between trying to equalise electorates and trying to respect local geographical identities?

Should such a far-reaching review process be guided solely by the number of registered electors or by potential electors? There is a risk that urban areas, in which under-registration is heavily concentrated, may experience the greatest reductions in the number of seats - largely because of the challenges of getting certain social groups to register to vote.


- The commission should provide the present and proposed boundaries maps on its website.
- To safeguard its recommendations the commission should provide a rationale for their recommendations.
- The commission should document its process, and maintain a record of all submissions made, a list of reviewed records, and interviews. This should be available for public scrutiny.

Review and the Future?

The proposed reforms should provide for regular review of the number of States members in each of the constituencies perhaps every 10 years to cater for population growth and migratory patterns. This should be be required by law - no longer at the executive's discretion - a periodic redistribution every twenty years, after the release of the census results, to be conducted by an independent commission.

The latter would be composed of people who were non-partisans; it would follow a rigid time schedule and consult the general public; and its recommended electoral map would have to be accepted as final by the Legislative Assembly.

(2) Apportionment and Representative Government. Alfred De Grazia, 1963

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