Alicia Nicholls and Kevon Edey
Should the Caribbean diaspora, or rather non-resident Caribbean citizens, be entitled to vote in national elections back home? This thorny issue has arisen again, including in a recent Kevz Politics Twitter poll, as Caribbean countries seek to make greater diaspora engagement a key plank of their post-COVID-19 development strategies. In Barbados, the issue also owes its contemporaneity to the on-going post-republic constitutional reform discussions in which the diaspora has also been engaged. We aim to contribute to this important development debate by discussing some of the issues to be considered as Caribbean countries navigate this question.
The Caribbean’s diaspora
The Caribbean’s diaspora is often hailed as one of its greatest untapped resources. A 2013 World Bank study estimated a one-to-one ratio on average of the Caribbean diaspora to residents. As the saying goes, there is a Caribbean person wherever you go in the world, but the main Caribbean diaspora hubs are concentrated in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada and continental Europe.
Caribbean countries’ efforts to deepen links with their diaspora communities predate the COVID-19 pandemic and over 85% of the respondents of the cited World Bank study already were giving back in some way to the region. However, the current polycrisis international economy forces Caribbean countries to think creatively about how the diaspora could more actively contribute to a sustainable and inclusive recovery and to the region’s achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030. Whereas initiatives to increase the diaspora’s economic involvement in their homeland’s economies are largely uncontroversial, diaspora political engagement has been less so.
Diaspora Voting: Some Considerations
Diaspora voting, sometimes called ‘external’ or ‘emigrant voting’, refers to the participation of the diaspora community in the electoral process in their country of origin. A growing number of countries, both developed and developing, permit voting by their non-resident, overseas nationals. The US allows its citizens to vote, regardless of location, once they are registered to vote. In the UK, one can register as an overseas voter once he or she is a citizen and was registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years.
Internationally, various diaspora voting modalities exist, such as voting in-person at a diplomatic mission, via postal ballot or even by proxy. Some countries restrict the types of elections in which overseas nationals could vote, often limiting the right to vote to general and not municipal elections. France reserves 11 diaspora constituencies out of the 577 seats in total in the national assembly and also has diaspora representation in its Senate. Some other countries allow overseas voters to vote in the constituency in which they were registered prior to leaving.
In Commonwealth Caribbean countries, the right to be registered to vote is generally based on being a citizen of that country but with the requirement that the person be resident in the constituency in which they wish to vote for a defined minimum period of time, depending on national law. Under the Barbados Representation of the People Act, that period of time is three months, with some exceptions. Similarly, Barbados electoral law allows Commonwealth citizens to be eligible to vote if they have lived here for at least three years immediately before the qualifying date. As Barbados undergoes the constitutional reform process, one question to be considered is whether the right to vote should be enshrined for those in the diaspora, even if non-resident in Barbados. It was recently reported in the local news media that diaspora voting was one of the recommendations made by some members of the diaspora during on-going stakeholder consultations held by the Constitution Reform Commission. Indeed, it was reported that commissioners had also consulted the Barbados diaspora in three UK cities.
It reiterated yet again the desire by some in the Barbadian and Caribbean diaspora who are not currently eligible to do so to be able to vote in national elections. The diaspora already votes to some extent. There is the practice of persons flying in to meet residency requirements in advance of an election or to cast their ballot if they are still on the voters’ list. However, the issue relates to whether the persons eligible to vote in the diaspora should be expanded. Proponents of diaspora voting posit, inter alia, that if the diaspora is being asked to invest and contribute even more to national development, they should have a greater say in national issues and the democratic process. However, the results of a recent Kevz Politics online opinion poll conducted in April found that 65% – or two-thirds of 2,100 respondents within the Caribbean Twitter community disagreed with the notion of facilitating conventional diaspora voting. While this poll is not scientific, it does seem to be reflective of a general ill-ease among many with the concept of allowing diaspora voting in the future.
While voters in the Kevz Politics poll were merely given the response options of yes, no or not sure, the quote retweets indicated at least three major and legitimate concerns persons harbour over such voting. The first is that persons in the diaspora do not have to live with the direct consequences of their vote. Second, there is the fear that the diaspora vote could disproportionately tilt the results of the election given the size of the diaspora community and the marginal nature of many constituencies in regional elections. A third concern is the extent to which those in the diaspora could make an informed choice at the ballot box if they are not living in their homeland. These are all concerns worthy of discussion and should be given careful and fulsome consideration as part of this on-going discourse.
On the first concern, non-resident citizens are obviously not as directly impacted by home Government policies as residents. However, those who spend part of the year in their homeland, own property, pay taxes, invest, own bank accounts, send remittances to family members, for example, are in fact, to varying extents, impacted by policies implemented by governments back home. The diaspora community might also be more inclined to invest and otherwise contribute to their homeland theoretically if they have some say in the democratic process.
The second concern highlights the fear that the democratic will of the people could be negated by the diaspora vote skewing the election. Given the small size of Caribbean national populations, ranging from less than 50,000 in St. Kitts & Nevis to 2,800,000 in Jamaica, this is a legitimate concern that must be addressed, especially in those countries with Citizenship by Investment programmes. With an increasing number of Caribbean countries seeing an increase in voter apathy, a trend which has intensified since the pandemic, a higher-than-average turnout among the non-resident population in an election with depressed resident population turnout could be highly consequential. In some past Caribbean elections, it has been alleged that diasporic participation was bolstered by key societal stakeholder assistance, making it easier for persons abroad to come back home to vote. While not all members of the diaspora would wish to exercise their right to vote in their country of origin, there should be some qualification criteria to determine eligibility. Qualification criteria should be based on careful research and consultation as such policy should be balanced – adequately considering concerns raised by citizens domestically and abroad.
The third relates to whether the diaspora community comprises adequately informed potential voters. Perhaps to some, many persons in the diaspora – particularly those who left many moons ago – may have political viewpoints which may not exactly align with the current realities of their homeland. Conversely, there are just as many in the diaspora community, especially those of the first generation, who maintain an active interest in the domestic affairs of their home countries. These dynamics can also be seen domestically where citizens may have varying degrees of engagement in the current affairs of the day. Nevertheless, this reason, by itself, should not preclude the diaspora from being eligible to vote.
Evidence-based decision-making needed
In conclusion, we hope that this issue will not be swept under the rug but will be given full ventilation. Debate should be focused not merely on knee-jerk reactions, but informed and considered discussion of the pros and cons. As the world becomes more interconnected, the concept of active citizenship continues to be redefined, whether the Caribbean likes it or not. If Caribbean countries agree that the diaspora should be enfranchised, there is need to fulsomely discuss the eligibility criteria, how this voting could be facilitated and how it could be most effectively managed to ensure that those at home are not de facto disenfranchised. Many factors, including the potential administrative challenges, must be considered to reduce the likelihood of voter fraud. If Caribbean countries decide to expand diaspora voting, we suggest looking at extant diaspora voting models in other countries and determining whether any provide useful best practices which could inform our own solutions tailored to our unique circumstances. An education and sensitization campaign around diaspora voting will be necessary not just for the diaspora but those living at home. By no means do we suggest that this is an easy issue. Elections have consequences – if we are serious about a sustainable and inclusive model of development that includes greater cooperation with the diaspora, it is one we must tackle head-on sooner rather than later.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is an international trade consultant and founder of CaribbeanTradeLaw.com. Kevon Edey, B.Sc., M.Sc. is a political communications analyst and founder and director of KevzPolitics.
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