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Editorial || Ensure Fair Voting Power with Equitable Redistricting

The proposed Representation of the People Amendment Bill's 35% voter disparity threshold has raised concerns, with the Belize Peace Movement (BPM) advocating for a stricter 15% upper-bound limit to ensure fair and equal voter representation.

The principle of "one man, one vote" is fundamental to our democratic society, ensuring that each citizen's vote carries equal weight. However, as the BPM has admonished, the current redistricting proposal challenges this standard. The BPM asserts that the 35% threshold for voter disparity is excessively high and undermines the essence of democratic representation.

To illustrate the issue, consider the disparity between the Mesopotamia and Stann Creek West constituencies. Mesopotamia has only 2,267 voters, while Stann Creek West has 10,449. This means that a voter in Mesopotamia has almost five times the voting power of a voter in Stann Creek West. In other words, it takes more than 10,000 people to elect one Stann Creek West Area Representative, while it takes fewer than 2,500 voters to bring the Mesopotamia representative to Parliament. Such a significant imbalance is unacceptable in a fair and just electoral system.

Picture, for example, petitioners seeking to invoke the Recall of Elected Representatives Act ("Recall Act") in their constituency (as was recently witnessed in Port Loyola). The Recall Act mandates that petitioners must reach a 30% threshold for the petition to trigger a recall. For Mesopotamia, 30% is fewer than 1,000 people. In Stann Creek West, however, that would be closer to 3,000 voters’ signatures being required. Every citizen should ask why it should be so much easier for one division’s voters relative to another to exercise their democratic right.

This is why international best practices suggest a narrower margin. The 15% threshold is one such recommendation.

Applying a quick back-of-the-envelope approach with this standard is useful. First, recall that the average number of voters is 6,328 (across all constituencies). Therefore, 15% above and below that average should give us a range between 5,378 and 7,276. In other words, using this back-of-the-envelope approach, no division should have fewer than 5,378 voters and none should have more than 7,276. (Naturally, in a more thorough exercise, other factors would be taken into account, but, as stated above, this is just an illustrative example).

For Mesopotamia (or whatever merger with another division) to meet this standard, it would need to increase its voter count from 2,267 to at least 5,378. Conversely, Stann Creek West would need to reduce its voter count from 10,449 to a maximum of about 7,276. This adjustment would narrow the gap significantly, ensuring a more equitable distribution of voting power. Instead of Mesopotamia’s voters having almost five times the voting power, it would be closer to 1.4 times more.

In contrast, a hypothetical 30% threshold would allow a wider range of deviation, from 4,430 to 8,226 voters per constituency.

The BPM's concerns are well-founded. They have consistently advocated for, at most, a 15% threshold, aligning with international best practices and ensuring fairer voter representation. The current proposal's 35% threshold is more than double that benchmark.

This deviation from best practices raises several concerns. First, it could lead to increased political disenfranchisement in larger constituencies, where voters may feel their influence is diluted. This could result in lower voter turnout and engagement, further weakening the democratic process. Secondly, such imbalances can foster regional inequalities, where certain areas receive disproportionate attention and resources due to their higher representation power. This undermines the principle of equal representation and can exacerbate social and economic divides.

Moreover, the potential for gerrymandering increases with higher voter disparity thresholds. Political entities might manipulate constituency boundaries to create safe seats, undermining the competitiveness of elections and the accountability of elected officials. This could erode public trust in the electoral system and democratic institutions as a whole.

For The Reporter, our view on this matter is this: If the government is going to pursue a threshold well above best practice, then full transparency regarding this decision is necessary. It is crucial that the public understands the rationale behind this choice and how it addresses or compromises the principles of fair representation.

Fundamentally, the government must ensure that the redistricting process adheres to democratic principles and international standards. Equitable voter representation is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Therefore, any deviation from this requires complete transparency and public discourse, especially if trust in our electoral system and democracy is to be preserved.

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