Obstacles facing overseas Mongolian voters – The Diplomat
In the 1990s, as Mongolia transitioned from state socialism to multi-party democracy, its citizens gained the right to vote and freedom of movement. More than three decades later, the country has seen multiple elections and, in line with the deepening of democracy, the strength of its diaspora has also increased, from a few thousand in 1992 to over 120,000 in 2020.
However, democracy in the country did not result in the complete emancipation of Mongolian expatriates. The diaspora is only allowed to elect the president, in a country that is primarily a parliamentary democracy. Further away, entry numbers among expatriates have been disappointing: in 2021, only 7,394 of the approximately 120,000 Mongolians living abroad registered to vote and only 2,082 people (39.8% of those registered) voted.
What are the factors that push democracies to emancipate their diaspora? Do these conditions apply to Mongolia? And why was turnout so low? The article is based on a literature review and interviews, mainly with Mongolian expatriates in the United States and Canada.
Migration Specialist Jean-Michel Lafleur uses primary data collected in Italy, Mexico and Bolivia, which emancipated their voters in the 2000s, and identifies two main explanatory variables. First, when sending countries view emigrants as assets in the global economy – one way to quantify this is in terms of remittances – voting rights are used to secure loyalty. The second factor is the role of émigré associations and lobbies, which can put pressure on national actors to debate the external vote within the legislature. Moreover, as in the case of Italy, associations can push for the creation of an external constituency which would exclude the need for a physical presence of a voter in the country of origin.
Mongolia scores high on the first variable. Remittances from other countries are significant: $548.83 million, the equivalent of 4.1% of GDP, in 2020, higher than the average for low- and middle-income countries (1.7% of GDP). As for the second factor, organizations like the Council of Overseas Mongols have conducted diaspora mapping exercises and identified the right to vote as something to include in their lobbying agenda. However, it is unclear what voice these groups have in the Mongolian Parliament.
Complicating the call for emancipation is the fact that the political landscape has been largely dominated by the Mongolian People’s Party, while Mongolian expats are seen as largely sympathetic to parties that are currently in opposition. In 2021, while opposition candidate Enkhbat Dangaasuren won only 21.6% of the total votes in the presidential election, around 75% of 2,082 voters abroad voted in his favour. .
Turnout is also consistently low among overseas Mongols. Lawyer based in Mongolia Uyanga Delger writes that in 2012, when expats were allowed to vote in legislative elections, only around 2,279 people cast their ballots. Subsequently, Mongols abroad were restricted to voting only in presidential elections. Turnout remained low, as indicated by voter turnouts in the 2013 (4,242) and 2017 (4,767) elections.
One of the reasons cited by our respondents in North America for not voting was to register and visit embassies located in capital cities. While this was possible for voters living in or around Ottawa or Washington DC, it became difficult for voters living in the Midwest or along the West Coast. Based on a Pew Survey as of 2021, the highest concentration of Mongols in the United States are in cities such as Chicago (over 1,100 kilometers from the Mongolian Embassy in Washington, D.C.), Los Angeles (3,700 kilometers away), San Francisco (3,900 kilometers away), Seattle (4,500 kilometers away) and Denver (2,670 kilometers away).
Giving us an indication of voting difficulties, a Chicago resident of Mongolian descent, who heads a Mongolian diaspora organization, says voters must register 30 days before the election before they are even allowed to go to the embassy.
While distance might explain low turnout, what explains low enrollment? As noted above, only 7,394 people (out of approximately 120,000 Mongolian expats) have registered to vote in 2021. The flowers the writings provide answers. First, he says, unless citizens have administrative reasons (passport renewal) or are in an emergency (need repatriation), they generally do not contact diplomatic missions. Second, voters who oppose their country’s political regimes fear persecution if their whereabouts are tracked by the authorities. Third, he writes, many migrants living in other countries may be undocumented.
Victor Lutenco, head of the International Organization for Migration’s team in Mongolia, says the very need for registration adds to a long list of overseas voting challenges, deterring many potential voters. He advocates a Moldovan-style system, where registration serves only to inform electoral bodies on how best to organize the vote abroad: the number and location of polling stations, the number of ballots, the opening hours, etc. A similar system, he says, would allow anyone living abroad with a Mongolian passport to vote for their candidate, without requiring them to register.
In a country with a total population of around 3.2 million, the 120,000 Mongols residing abroad constitute an important voting bloc, around 4% of the population. More efforts should be made to ensure that they too can participate in their country’s democratic processes – especially the act of voting.