Citizenship Beyond Borders: The Politics of Emigrant Enfranchisement

Over 258 million people currently live in a country different from where they were born, an increase of 69% since 1990. How does the democratic norm of universal suffrage operate in an era of burgeoning international mobility? My book project, Citizenship Beyond Borders: The Politics of Emigrant Enfranchisement, examines the conditions under which governments organize voting for citizens living abroad. In 1990, only 37 countries extended voting rights to their diasporas; today, nearly 140 countries legally enfranchise emigrant citizens. These policies are not inconsequential; diaspora votes have determined the winner in multiple recent presidential elections, including Romania and Cape Verde.

Protesters outside the Embassy of Zimbabwe, Pretoria, South Africa, 2016. Photo: Tshegofatso Ngobeni (Pretoria East Rekord).

Protesters outside the Embassy of Zimbabwe, Pretoria, South Africa, 2016. Photo: Tshegofatso Ngobeni (Pretoria East Rekord).

Prior work interprets the rise of emigrant enfranchisement as a state strategy to strengthen ties to citizens abroad, or as an emerging norm associated with political liberalization. Empirical analysis of emigrant enfranchisement has focused primarily on the moment of legal extension. However, by analyzing legal adoption and effective implementation as two distinct political processes, I show why, despite a majority of countries extending diaspora voting in principle, there is significant variation of diaspora voting in practice. I argue that this variation is driven primarily by the electoral logic of the incumbent party. My theory predicts that, far from being the consensus choice for governments, emigrant enfranchisement will be a contentious process and a site of partisan conflict.

I take a multi-method approach to test the observable implications of my argument. I analyze an original dataset of emigrant enfranchisement in Africa, covering multiple dimensions of external voting access for every national election since 1990. I combine this analysis with insights from dozens of interviews and archival documents collected during eight months of fieldwork in South Africa. I find that governments are more likely to organize expansive voting if elections are closely contested—but only if the incumbent believes the diaspora will vote for their party.

The in-depth case studies of South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe further highlight incumbent party resistance and restrictive external voting in contexts where alternative explanations predict high levels of emigrant inclusion, as well as advocacy efforts to expand diaspora participation. Thus, in addition to its theoretical motivation, this book makes a significant empirical contribution by providing the first comprehensive, systematic accounting of diaspora voting in sub-Saharan Africa as well as producing negative case studies that broaden our knowledge of emigrant inclusion (and exclusion) in electoral politics.