During a workshop dubbed the “Kenya Diaspora Considerations for Out-of-Country Voting” held in Washington, D.C. on November 2, the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission chairman, Mr Ahmed Issack Hassan, reiterated that for the March elections, the Kenyan diaspora will register and vote in person at Kenya’s embassies and consulates abroad.
This plan means that only Kenyans near the country’s diplomatic facilities will vote. For Kenyans in the US, only a lucky few live lose to the country’s embassies in Washington, New York and the consulate in Los Angeles.
There are two good reasons for the IEBC to reconsider its diaspora poll plan with respect to Kenyans in the US.
While the Kenyan diaspora in the New York City area is ethnically diverse and more representative of Kenya, the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. diaspora mostly consists of Kikuyus. Conversely, Minneapolis is home to many members of the Somali and Gusii communities.
This ethnic reality attends to the distribution of Kenyans in many US cities and is mostly a product of the migration process itself rather than due to diaspora Kenyans’ desire to self-segregate by ethnicity.
Thus, the IEBC’s insistence on the Kenyan diaspora voting at the country’s US diplomatic facilities will inadvertently favour certain presidential candidates and political parties over others.
To avoid this, the IEBC should make the Kenyan diaspora vote as inclusive and reflective of Kenya as possible by creating more polling stations in the US, more so in Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Columbus (Ohio), Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City.
While IEBC officials have argued in the past that there is no reliable data on the distribution of Kenyans in the US to facilitate their creation of more polling stations.
Second, from a practical and cost standpoint, most Kenyans in the US live too far from diplomatic facilities to participate in an embassy-consulate vote.
This is self-evident if one bears in mind that the United States is close to 17 times larger than Kenya. In fact, the states of Texas and Alaska are both larger than Kenya!
Consequently, a Kenyan who wishes to travel from Dallas (Texas) to Washington, D.C., to register and vote, must make two 2,650-mile long (about 3,975 km) trips. Each could last 42 hours and cost nearly $1,457 plus the cost of food, lodging and incidentals. Although flying might reduce these costs, they would be no less prohibitive to many.
Thus, while the IEBC has rightly urged Kenyans in the US to prepare to exercise their civic duty by registering and voting at the country’s diplomatic facilities, most of them cannot afford to do so.
The IEBC should, therefore, do more to facilitate this diaspora’s right to vote by creating additional registration and polling stations.
While those suggested above won’t cover every Kenyan in the US, they would enable most of them to vote.
Moreover, the expanded list of voting stations would enable the IEBC to kill two birds with one stone: include most Kenyan population centres in the US (especially Dallas and Minneapolis) in next year’s historic vote, besides being more progressive in implementing the diaspora vote clause.
As the Cabinet and Parliament examine the country’s diaspora vote regulations, I hope they will take these issues into account and prevail on the IEBC to be more responsive to the needs of Kenyan voters in the US.
It is also in the best interest of major presidential candidates and their parties to push for the suggested changes. Failure to do so, could cost many of them dearly now and in the future.
In the end, the best reason for the IEBC to do everything within its power to facilitate the participation of as many diaspora Kenyans as possible in the vote is that they, like other Kenyan citizens, have a right to vote and the IEBC should ensure they do.
Moreover, Kenya needs to do a better job of ensuring that its diaspora is well-represented in its decision making organs. Not doing so amounts to continuation of an unjust system of taxation (through remittances) without representation.
While remittances don’t confer on the diaspora an inside track to the vote, greater sensitivity to diaspora needs can go a long way in encouraging its sense of belonging.
Prof Otiso teaches urban and economic geography at Bowling Green State University and is president of the Kenya Scholars and Studies Association.