Can the Diaspora Vote Influence Latin American Elections?

By Mark Keller

A large diaspora vote could influence the Dominican Republic’s May 20 election. The same may not be true for the Mexican and Venezuelan elections to be held this year.

With a close presidential race in the Dominican Republic, some speculate that expatriate voters living in the United States could play a decisive role in that county’s May 20 presidential election. This possibility raises the question of the influence the diaspora could play in this year’s two other Latin American elections in Mexico and Venezuela. Both countries also permit their citizens to vote from abroad, but their exterior vote has much less potential to be as decisive than in Dominican election.

The Dominican Republic counts 6.5 million voters on its rolls, 5 percent of whom live abroad. Of voters who live outside the country, 68 percent reside in the United States, amounting to about 220,000 people. Given the size of the electorate abroad—the number of Dominican voters in the United States is larger than 27 of 31 Dominican provinces—some say that group has the ability to sway the country’s election.  Consequently, the two presidential frontrunners are vying for expat votes: the last major poll from May 7 put Danilo Medina of the Dominican Liberation Party only 5 points ahead of Hipólito Mejía of the Dominican Revolutionary Party.  Medina and Mejía both toured the United States in April to win the diaspora’s support, making stops in Dominican communities in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. 

The influence of the Dominican electorate contrasts with that of expatriate Mexicans, who will go to the polls on July 1. Although Mexico’s government estimates that 4.2 million out of a total 10 million Mexican citizens in the United States are eligible to vote, registration and turnout have been low. In 2006, only 54,780 Mexicans registered to vote, and only 32,632 votes were cast that year. In 2012, despite increased outreach from Mexican consulates and the Federal Electoral Institute, approximately 59,044 Mexicans in the United States have registered to vote. The Migration Policy Institute attributes this low registration to a number of factors, including unwillingness to pay postage to mail the ballot, reluctance to return to Mexico to acquire the required credentials, and fear that ballots may be intercepted by U.S. authorities to track down unauthorized migrants. 

Considering the relatively small diaspora vote compared to voter rolls of nearly 80 million people in Mexico, the expatriate electorate is unlikely to be decisive in this year’s election. The Institutional Revolution Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto leads current polls by a significant margin and is widely expected to win in July. However, in the tightly contested 2006 election—which President Felipe Calderón won by a narrow margin—expatriate voters perhaps did play a larger role. In that election, Calderón received 57 percent of votes from abroad while the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador received 33 percent.

The Venezuelan diaspora vote is the most politically charged of the three Latin America countries heading to the polls this year. Many Venezuelans living abroad left due to disagreement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s policies, and are therefore quite critical of his government. In the 2004 referendum to recall Chávez, 97 percent of U.S.-based Venezuelans voted in favor of his ouster, compared with 41 percent in favor overall. Venezuelans abroad consistently voted against Chávez’s referendums, and supported the opposition in every election. In this year’s election, the opposition Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD)’s Henrique Capriles Radonski has actively courted the expatriate vote.

In the latest round of voter registration, which concluded April 15, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council counted 99,626 registered voters abroad out of a total Venezuelan electorate of 19 million.  However, many Venezuelans abroad complained of long lines, short consular hours, and other impediments to registering. Miami—home to the largest Venezuelan expatriate community—was left without a registration center after the Miami consulate closed in January 2012. Information on voting from abroad is difficult to find on government websites, including that of the National Electoral Council.

The MUD claimed that these actions impeded the registration of 600,000 eligible voters abroad—votes that presumably would have gone to the opposition. However, Venezuela’s El Universal says other factors may also be in play. Given the release of the Lista Tascón in 2004—which published the names of those in favor of Chávez’s recall—voters abroad fear retaliation from the government that could affect their access to foreign exchange as well as the jobs and education of family members in Venezuela. 

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