Between March 3 and March 9, 532,384 Colombians living abroad will be able to vote in the country’s congressional elections. Of the 75 countries that have Colombian consulates, 63 have consulates with authorized poll stations. The external electoral process does not receive much media coverage but should be the focus of close observation: some consequent legislative changes had been realized and will be implemented for the first time in the upcoming congressional election.
Colombia has traditionally experienced high population mobility due to an unstable internal political situation and the lure of foreign economies. The governmental institution charged with keeping the national census (DANE) has registered three main phases in the Colombia’s international migration history: during the 1960s, when around 110,000 Colombians left, mainly to the United States; the 80s, when Venezuela became a primary destination, and the 90s, when around 900,000 people left the country, ending up in Spain, among other places. Since 1961, these Colombians have had the right to vote in presidential elections.
It should be noted that updated official statistics of the Colombian population abroad are difficult to come by. According to DANE estimates, more than three-million Colombians lived abroad in 2005. A recent study performed by the US-based Ibernet Media and Consultants found the number had reached 5.6 million by 2010. The Colombian Registrar’s Office, meanwhile, reports that there are 532,384 Colombians qualified to vote in 2014, located mainly in the United States (177.856), Venezuela (164.219), Spain (77.745), Ecuador (19.963) and Panama (9.834).
Regardless, a set of election laws passed in recent years have new implications for international voting: the number of seats reserved for international candidates in the House of Representatives increased from one to two, and the voting period is extended to one day to one week.
Legislative Act 01 of 2013
As part of a broader effort to ensure and promote the political participation of marginalized citizens, the Colombian Constitution authorizes Colombians abroad to vote in congress elections. In Congress, senators are elected in nationwide elections and representatives local or special circumscriptions. The Constitution establishes a special voting district in the House of Representatives for ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, and Colombians abroad.
Previously, Colombians in the diaspora could elect one representative from their special district. Now the number has been increased to two, in the hope of keeping up with the steady increase in the Colombian ex-patriot community.
Legislative Act 1475 of 2011
The second modification to the foreign electoral process pertains to the registration and voting periods. Since 2002, the electoral potential of Colombia has gone up, even as the actual registration and political participation has gone down. For a number of reasons, Colombia’s democracy is not very active, but this trend is especially notable abroad. During the past two elections, absenteeism abroad reached an average of 87%, which enabled the U Party (Partido de la U) candidate, Jaime Buenahora, to be elected in 2010 with only 4,468 votes.
2011’s Act 1475 enables Colombian citizens abroad to register for elections election day and obligates Colombian consulates to be open every day during the month prior. In the same way, Colombians abroad have no longer only one day to vote but a full week. As a result, citizens can vote for the congressional elections from March 3 to March 9 and for the presidential elections from May 19 to May 25 — and from June 9 to June 15 should a second round of voting be necessary. For the 2014 elections, however, only 110 of the 214 registered international polling stations will be opened the entire week. The rest, will receive voters only on Sunday, March 9.
As the voting period lasts several days, a partial counting will be held at the end of each election day, with the results officially reported Sunday, after the closing of all the other poll stations, abroad and in Colombia. Ideally, the preliminary results would be kept secret, but the confidentiality of the counting is not sufficiently guaranteed.
Other problems, such as a lack of targeted information campaigns educating the international population about the changes, mean that the new provisions will have limited effects. Additionally, more basic concerns have been traditionally raised regarding foreign elections. Indeed, already on Monday, the MOE has received reports indicating that certain consulates have insufficient stores of ballots and that, in other cases, registered observers have been denied access to polling stations.