Independence referendum set for today

Bermuda's long-awaited Independence referendum will take place at 10 a.m.

But as Hurricane Felix brushed Bermuda and spun away toward the US, a stronger storm erupted over the postponement of yesterday's vote.

Bermuda's long-awaited Independence referendum will take place at 10 a.m.

today, Government announced last night.

But as Hurricane Felix brushed Bermuda and spun away toward the US, a stronger storm erupted over the postponement of yesterday's vote.

Government backbencher Dr. David Dyer called for a probe into why returning officers did not open the Island's 20 polling stations for 10 a.m. yesterday, as set out in law.

If the storm was severe, it was expected the returning officers would open the polls and then adjourn voting until Wednesday morning, as provided for in the Independence Referendum Act.

Instead, Cabinet Secretary Mr. Leopold Mills went on radio at 8 a.m. to announce the referendum was postponed indefinitely.

Two Government backbenchers -- lawyers the Hon. Ann Cartwright DeCouto and Mr.

John Barritt -- were in a closed-door Supreme Court hearing all afternoon with Chief Justice the Hon. Austin Ward.

They sought an injunction ordering Parliamentary Registrar Mrs. Marlene Christopher to open the polls. The court hearing was set to resume this morning at 10.30 a.m., should voting not begin.

Senate President the Hon. Albert Jackson made an unprecedented public appeal yesterday for the referendum to get underway, and sources said Governor Lord Waddington, a lawyer, also voiced the view that the indefinite postponement announced yesterday morning was illegal.

Opposition Leader Mr. Frederick Wade noted that voting had already begun in two advance polls. Any attempt to set a new date would mean only the ballots cast in those two polls could be counted in determining the outcome, he said.

Mr. Wade believed Premier the Hon. Sir John Swan -- who wants a "yes'' vote and has pledged to resign unless he gets one -- made the decision not to open the polls. "He has seen that the poll is against him and he would use any means necessary to prevent the defeat that was imminent,'' Mr. Wade said.

Mr. Edgar Wilkinson, a close ally of Sir John, was telling people yesterday morning that the referendum would be delayed until December, sources said.

Meanwhile, as the hearing before the Chief Justice continued across the street, returning officers were finally sent from the Government Administration Building early yesterday afternoon to open the polling stations and adjourn voting at each one until 10 a.m. this morning.

But the news media and the Bermudian public waited another five hours for a Government announcement that voting would begin today. At 7.05 p.m., after an emergency Cabinet session ended, the statement was finally sent.

Sir John said after the meeting he would have preferred to delay the vote. But he said his motive was getting a strong turn-out, not influencing the outcome.

"Because of the weather conditions that have obviously distracted people away from their focus on the referendum, my hope was that there might have been a chance for people to be given some other time to take such an important decision,'' he told The Royal Gazette .

He urged Bermudians to come out and vote and said: "I was not involved in the decision to postpone the referendum.'' Mr. Mills backed him on that point. "That decision had nothing to do with what anyone believes the Premier did or did not want,'' Mr. Mills said. "That decision was taken by me because of the information we had received.'' Although the worst of the storm had passed hours earlier, Mr. Mills cited the fact the storm was forecast to be three times worse than Hurricane Emily was in 1987, as well as the fact power was out in many places, trees were down, bridges were out, and high winds continued.

It was not possible for returning officers to reach the polling stations, he said. When conditions changed, they went out.

Polls close tonight at 9 p.m., and it is expected to be about 4 a.m. on Thursday before the final tally is known.

Last week, the public was told the August 15 referendum was enshrined in law and could not be postponed without recalling Parliament.

But under the Parliamentary Election Act 1978, individual returning officers could "adjourn'' the vote until 10 a.m. the following morning, should voting be "interrupted or obstructed by general disorder or by any other circumstances beyond the control of the returning officer'' which made it "impracticable for voting to continue.'' At 9.30 a.m., Government spokesman Ms Valerie Pethen said the vote was postponed indefinitely, because returning officers and other election workers were prevented by blocked roads and power cuts from reaching the Island's 20 polling stations.

Since returning officers had not opened polling stations, they could not adjourn the voting, she said. Parliament would have to meet before a new date could be set, and it was clear the vote could not be held as early as today.

Last night, Ms Pethen agreed that her earlier statement -- which Government Information Services director Mr. Gavin Shorto said was given on behalf of Cabinet Secretary Mr. Mills, and not the Emergency Measures Organisation -- had not held up.

Mr. Shorto said the postponement was the Cabinet Secretary's call. Considering the road conditions, weather, and possible risk of injury, it was a common sense call which was not provided for in law, he said.

Some returning officers arrived at the Government Administration Building in the morning to collect their ballot boxes and found the doors locked, said Government MP Mr. Trevor Moniz. One returning officer, who did not wish to be named, said he was telephoned at home by the Parliamentary Registrar and told not to attend. Meanwhile, Mr. Mills was on radio at 8 a.m. giving a similar statement to Ms Pethen's.

Mrs. Cartwright DeCouto, who appeared before the Chief Justice with Mr.

Barritt, said the postponement as announced by Ms Pethen and Mr. Mills was clearly illegal.

Dr. Dyer said the Government was engaging in "crazy, banana republic like activity.

"If there ever was an example of why this isn't the time to go to Independence, this is the example,'' he said. While the Progressive Labour Party was criticised for urging supporters to abstain in the vote, Government was "disenfranchising the entire Island''.

"The law doesn't allow this strange behaviour that took place this morning,'' said Dr. Dyer. "I would have thought that an investigation would be required to get to the bottom of this.'' "It's unusual, and I find it disturbing,'' Dr. Dyer said. "The Government has put forward these position papers saying they're going to enshrine certain things in the Constitution, yet we have an Act of Parliament being breached.'' The Public Service Commission, the Deputy Governor, or maybe the Attorney General should launch the investigation, he said.

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