Belize Peace Movement (BPM) attorney Michelle Trapp reminded this week that the redistricting exercise demands that there be “equal” and not “effective” representation.
“If you look at the expert’s [Mr. Sean Trende’s] report, he speaks of equals, equality of vote, and the strength of voters,” she advised. “He does not speak of effective representation. I say that word because it’s a word that I’ve been hearing throughout the press briefings as it relates to effective representation.”
Trapp’s statement on “effective representation” being brought up in the media is a reference to comments made by the Minister of Constitutional and Political Reform, Hon. Henry Charles Usher, who on multiple occasions has invoked the term.
Speaking to the media in March this year, Usher said: “The Constitution says that there must be effective representation; it does not say equal representation.”
While the term “effective representation” is not inherently worrisome—as it also includes references to proportional representation and other measures to improve representation—on the facts, the section 90(1) of the Constitution does read as follows:
“The Elections and Boundaries Commission shall, after considering the electoral distribution of the population throughout Belize, make proposals from time to time for dividing Belize into electoral divisions in such a way that (a) each electoral division shall have as nearly as may be an equal number of persons eligible to vote.”
Political scientist and redistricting expert Sean Trende, in his report submitted to the Belize Supreme Court in 2020 as part of the BPM case, likewise underscored the significance of equal representation.
“International standards of democracy emphasize the importance of equally populated divisions. This secures the right to vote by helping to ensure that no vote counts more than any other votes,” Trende wrote. “This is reflected in section 90(1) of the Belize Constitution.”
Trende, who is the senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, explained in his report that the equality requirement is pivotal as it pertains to “helping to ensure that no vote counts more than any other votes.” This echoes to the “one person, one vote” principle that is offended when there are too wide disparities across divisions.
He elaborated on the fact that international standards permit deviations across constituencies of about ten percent. However, in Belize, the report highlights that Belize’s malapportionment is “extreme under any existing standard.”
How bad is it?
In terms of how bad it is, September 2022 data from the Elections and Boundaries Department confirm Trende’s observation that there is significant malapportionment across most of the 31 constituencies.
As of September 2022, the average size across constituencies is just above 6,000 voters per division. However, this average masks significant disparities, with divisions such as Fort George—the smallest—having only 2224 voters registered and Stann Creek West hosting 10,284.
The latter is approximately 4.6 times larger than the former, a fact that breaches the “one person, one vote” principle because this implies that the value of each vote in Fort George carries almost five times more weight than each vote in Stann Creek West. Said differently, even if there were unanimous votes in General Elections, it only takes 2,224 persons to elect a Fort George Area Representative while it would take more than 10,000 to select a representative for Stann Creek West.
In terms of keeping within the ten percent international benchmark, the data shows that only four electoral divisions—Dangriga, Cayo North East, Orange Walk Central, and Corozal Bay—fall within the threshold. All other divisions, to varying degrees, exceed the benchmark. On average, divisions are about 28 percent above and 29 percent below the mean, respectively.