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The Paradox of Voting: Sudanese in the Abroad

7 January 2011

Sunday marks the start of voting in the Southern Sudan Referendum, an election in which voters will choose between unity with or secession from the whole of Sudan. In all of my reading about the upcoming referendum, I have yet to come across a compelling argument for unity. And today journalist Geoffrey York writes:

The outcome is in little doubt, with a landslide vote for independence widely expected.

All of this has made me wonder why many Sudanese will vote. Perhaps it’s the rational-actor-oriented political scientist in me that is puzzled about why anyone votes* (including my puzzlement at my own predilection to vote even when I know I’ve got almost no likelihood of casting the pivotal vote), because I will be impressed if there is a large turnout for the election. Of course, in order for a majority vote for secession to be valid, at least 60% of registered voters must take part in the referendum.** Consistent with a rational actor model of voter turnout though, we might expect low registration rates. Jason Straziuso and Maggie Fick report almost 4 million voters registered to vote in the referendum, including 116,000 Southerners living in the North and 60,000 Sudanese living in the abroad.

This latter group, Sudanese living outside of Sudan, is particularly interesting to me. We might expect them to unilaterally support secession: many are refugees from the decades-long civil war, so to put it simply, they thought Northern oppression of the South bad enough to leave Sudan. Yet the cost of voting — getting to one of the few out of country voting centers to register to vote and then returning some weeks later to vote — are high for this group.

Southern Sudan Referendum Out-of-Country Voting Centers

Nonetheless, there are some who advocate voting in the abroad at any cost; consider this quote from a Sudanese-American living in Colorado:

This vote is very important. If you lose your job, you can get a new job. But if you lose your country, it is very difficult to get it again.

Another remarked:

We’ve been fighting for 55 years. This is only 2 days.

However, the same article from which these quotes are drawn reports only 46 of the 400 or so Sudanese that live in the Denver area registered to vote.

Could the expected landslide explain why many Sudanese in the U.S. won’t vote? Or are the costs of voting too high for most in the impoverished refugee community? And what motivates those who do vote? I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks trying to answer these questions in Dallas, Texas, a city reported to have the second largest Sudanese population in the U.S. I have been given permission to monitor and observe the referendum election here in the U.S. and have begun to make contact with Sudanese community leders and American missionaries working with the Sudanese population in Dallas. I expect that despite the (well-deserved) attention in the international community to Sudan, that the Sudanese response to the referendum will be somewhat muted given expectations for secession, or perhaps expectations that the day-to-day lives of Sudanese will continue to be challenged by poverty and stalled development even with newfound freedom.

* For the uninitiated, in political science there is a well-known problem called the paradox of voting: for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting normally exceed the expected benefits, because the chance that any one voter will cast the deciding vote is almost zero. The act of voting is inherently costly:

…time is the principal cost of voting: time to register, to discover what parties are running, to deliberate, to go to the polls, and to mark the ballot (Downs 1957: 265).

It’s important to note that in the 50 years since Downs wrote An Economic Theory of Democracy that people have continued to register and vote in great numbers all around the world. Hooray for being a publicly relevant discipline.

** If the 60% threshold is not met, the referendum will be repeated within 60 days. The threshold is calculated on the total turnout (not for each referendum center).

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