Why IEBC has registered only a fraction of Kenyans in diaspora

In the just-ended registration exercise, IEBC only managed to register 2,959 new voters in the diaspora. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

In late 2021, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that Kenyans in America as well as those living in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Sudan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates will participate in the August 9 General Election. This brings the tally of external voting countries to 11 since Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa participated in the last election in 2017.

With the 15-day voter registration exercise for Kenyans in the diaspora ending, hard questions are already being raised on whether the IEBC did enough to get as many eligible voters registered. In America, most people have given the exercise a wide berth. Should IEBC take all the blame?

The decision-making process of immigrants on whether to participate in country-of-origin elections is influenced by the environment in which a person lives and by the political, economic, and social environment in the country of origin.

In 2017, close to 4,000 Kenyans living in the six participating countries registered to vote which by any standard, is a very dismal number. In the just-ended registration exercise, IEBC only managed to register 2,959 new voters in the diaspora.

Why then are Kenyans in diaspora not keen on participating in the electoral process of their beloved country?

Studies show that more people are likely to register to vote when there is evidence of established democratic institutions, or when they strongly believe in the ideals and ideologies of the political parties they support.

Low voter registration numbers are an indictment of Kenya’s democratic institutions. For example, the 2017 post-election violence is yet to be litigated in a way that ensures justice for the victims and accountability for the perpetrators.

In an ideal country, political parties should be drivers of philosophy and ideology and in turn, the populace would select a political party that closely resonates with their values and aspirations. Regrettably, in Kenya, politics revolve around political figures whether they espouse any ideology or not. This lack of political direction and clarity is a sure way of keeping people turned off from participating in the political process(es).

In the run-up to the voter registration exercise in the diaspora, the IEBC did not flood the diaspora media waves with information on this important exercise. There are many people who never got wind of the fact that Diaspora America could register to vote in the August poll.

In the 2006 election, Mexicans living abroad voted for the first time. Despite the Mexican government investing Sh400 million ($40 million) towards outreach and sensitisation, only 54,780 Mexicans, out of the eligible 4.2 million registered to vote.

A post-mortem done after the election by scholars to investigate the low participation by Mexicans living abroad revealed that there was a fear by Mexican nationals out of status in America that the US would intercept mailed ballots and use the information to track them down for deportation. In addition, most people were unwilling to pay for the certified postage required to mail the absentee ballot back to Mexico.

In America, given that only the embassy in Washington and the two consulates in New York and Los Angeles were available for in-person voter registration, only a miracle can deliver high registration numbers. First, these centres are not in regions that have a high population of Kenyans. According to the US Census Bureau, most Kenyans in America are in states like Texas, California, Georgia, Massachusetts. It is expensive to travel from Dallas to Los Angeles to register as a voter.

Studies show that after immigration, immigrants consciously or subconsciously modify aspects of their identity in response to the host culture. The Kenyan who left Kenya 10 or 20 years ago is not the same Kenyan today.

The following are some of the ways in which people change based on their environment. This becomes important when doing outreach to the community of Kenyans living abroad.

· Assimilators: The immigrants become assimilated into their new country. They are not interested in the goings-on in their country of origin.

· Fence sitters: The immigrants live on the edge either due to economic struggles or being out of status. They will not easily give up their information out of fear that information might be used against them.

· Cultural Affirmers: The immigrants keep the spirit of their country of origin alive in their everyday life. This is the population to target in such an exercise as registration of voters.

· Biculturals: The immigrants will adapt some attributes of the host nation and still be rooted in the culture and way of life of their motherland. They have a moderate approach to issues.

Registering as a voter and the attendant voting is a matter of civic voluntarism pegged on personal values. People who sacrifice time, resources, and comfort to register as voters to influence the political trajectory of their country have much more care in their DNA. Regrettably, going by the low numbers of people who register to vote in the diaspora, these types of Kenyans are in the minority.

Finally, external voting by non-resident citizens should be viewed as an important symbolic feature of contemporary democratic politics. It is a costly venture that will likely never determine the presidential race. It is the same way Kenya Airways flying to New York is a matter of national pride and not a revenue-generating affair.