As Voters Head To Polls Worldwide, What Is The Role Of The Diaspora?
Photo: Ethnic Media Services
By Selen Ozturk
With 2024 being the biggest election year in history — as over 70 countries with over four billion people send citizens to the polls — the role of diaspora communities is more crucial than ever.
At a January 12 Ethnic Media Services briefing, speakers discussed how AI and social media spread disinformation among diaspora groups and shared how diaspora communities will engage with elections in their homelands of Mexico, India, and Taiwan.
“The right to vote is one of the main demands of diaspora populations” and their home countries have responded, said Kathleen Newland, Senior Fellow, and Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute.
In 1980, only 21 countries enfranchised citizens abroad, whereas by 2020, 141 countries did — nearly three-quarters of the countries in the world.
Diaspora voting varies dramatically. In some countries, like India and Taiwan, voters are required to physically return. In others, like the U.S., overseas voting is “hands-off” without outreach to the diaspora, so that “people have to find out for themselves how to register,” explained Newland.
The electoral influence of diaspora communities depends not only upon the percentage of a country’s population living abroad and whether they can vote but also upon whether these overseas voters exercise their right to vote, Newland added.
Misinformation through social media, AI
Misinformation from abroad could be as impactful for some elections as votes from abroad, said Dr. Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University.
In the context of elections, misinformation not only inserts a fake claim into public discourse, but also “muddies the difference between what is fake and what is true … with themes, say, like the ‘deep state’ or COVID conspiracies,” he explained, “or of strong pro-Modi sentiment combined with criticism of dissenters in the case of the Indian diaspora … It’s like the Wikipedia problem, where 80% may be very accurate, but we don’t know what 20% of it is false.”
As AI is increasingly weaponized to spread fake news, the companies, and policies behind it are overwhelmingly U.S.-based — and so impact diaspora countries “like a trigger effect,” Chopra said, contributing to the rise of fake news globally.
This rise has coincided with a global increase in authoritarianism and a crisis of legitimacy for the media. Thus, even initiatives to criminalize fake news will involve serious concerns about the concentration of power.
“The political power of the diaspora is not limited to their voting power … we have to rethink the relationship between the state, technology, and the public globally,” Chopra added.
The Indian election is the largest by far this year, with about 900 million individuals registered to elect 543 members of Parliament across over 50 state parties through a million election booths between April and May, said Dr. Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Indian Political Economy at Columbia University.
Nevertheless, this parliamentary election is very much a presidential one, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the Hindu nationalist BJP party with a 76% approval rating in recent polls.
This popularity owes much to the fact that India has grown from the 10th to the fifth largest — and fastest growing — world economy, with low levels of inflation and unemployment, and a drastically more efficient social benefits system since Modi’s rise nine years ago.
Given that during this time, Modi has developed a tech corridor in India and promoted intensive collaboration with tech overseas, an issue at the forefront of U.S. Indian diaspora interests is tech development, Panagariya explained.
Because Modi’s opposition — led by Mallikarjun Kharge of the center-left INC — is more fragmented than in 2019, “it’s as though you’re voting for Modi or voting against Modi now,” Panagariya said, and “there’s a consensus” that he’ll win.
Much is at stake in 2024 when Mexican voters will elect a new six-year president, all 500 Chamber of Deputies members, and all 128 Senate members.
“We decide whether we want a continuation of the policies that we have had” under President Obrador, who won as an opposition party by a large margin and “transformed political life in Mexico by aiming to eradicate corruption … or we decide if we want to go back to the past,” said Dr. Diana Alarcón González, former chief advisor, and international affairs coordinator for Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum of Mexico City.
Currently, Claudia Sheinbaum — frontrunner of Obrador’s progressive populist MORENA party — is leading polls with 60% support.
Although the Mexican diaspora, unlike the Indian one, can vote abroad, only 70,000 are registered to vote in June — a very small number, given that 30 to 40 million first, second and third-generation Mexicans (all of whom can register) live abroad, said González.
For comparison, 98 million are registered to vote in Mexico, and 11 million first-generation Mexicans live in the U.S.
Thus, said González, although the Mexican diaspora is large enough to influence electoral results, “our greatest challenge is to increase their participation.”
With a historic third consecutive party win of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te on January 13, voters rebuffed mainland China by aligning themselves with the DPP-associated view of Taiwan as de facto independent.
This win will not only affect Taiwan’s relations with China but also with the U.S., especially given that “an official declaration of independence means Beijing’s military intervention and America’s involvement,” said Rong Xiaoqing, veteran reporter at Sing Tao Daily.
Nevertheless, throughout his campaign, Lai stressed “that he is not pushing for independence, only allowing the people the option to choose it or not,” Rong continued
Despite the decisiveness of this victory, voting was hard for the diasporic people of Taiwan; only 4,000 of its 700,000 U.S.-resident citizens were registered in 2024. As remote voting isn’t allowed, and the DPP has opposed attempts to legalize it, “you not only have to go back to Taiwan to vote, but you have to go to the city or village where you were registered,” he explained.
This difficulty favors the DPP given that many Taiwanese families went overseas before the party was formed in 1986, and many now are businessmen and international students — and thus have ties with the older, Chinese nationalist KMT party.
“I hear many complaints from Taiwanese immigrants who can’t take a flight because they’re poor or elderly that their voting rights are impeded,” said Rong. Now that the DPP has won, “it’s difficult to predict how Beijing will react” — and how this diaspora will be affected. (Ethnic Media Services)