When I visited Jamaica in the Fall of 2009, here is how a knowledgeable observer described the political reality facing the government: Desperately needed policy steps—steps that any objective observer would recognize as being good for the country—would cost the government many votes in the next election.
Extending an absentee ballot to the many Jamaicans who do not live on the island could assist the reform effort and reduce the political price that any government in Jamaica has to pay for implementing good policy. In fact, this change in its electoral system might be the only way to control the instability caused by the feedback between bad policy and out-migration of the best educated Jamaicans.
Jamaica is located on important sea lanes. It is close to major markets. Its cultural, climatic, and natural amenities rival those of any other place on earth. It is ten times larger than Singapore. Though its potential for prosperity is tremendous, its history of bad policy has undermined its appeal as a place to live and work. One clear indication is its high levels of crime and violence, including one of the highest murder rates in the world. Given the level of violence, it is not surprising that many Jamaicans, particularly the ones with the most education, move away.
The Jamaican diaspora is now estimated to be well over 2 million, compared to a population still on the island of about 2.8 million. In each cohort of young Jamaicans, a majority of those who receive any education beyond secondary school leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Some estimates put the figure as high as 80 percent.
Emigration poses a serious challenge for economic policy. Jamaica spends a relatively high percentage of GDP on education, but very little of this spending translates into more GDP. Worse still, it undercuts one of the key paths that other economies have used to improve policy: developing a well educated electorate.
Absentee voting could change Jamaica’s political dynamic. If a substantial block of well educated voters live elsewhere, parties in Jamaica would have to compete for their votes by proposing good policies rather than by offering patronage and subsidies to local residents, or worse still, protection to criminal gangs.
Competition for local votes now perpetuates criminal activity in what are known as Jamaica’s “garrison” communities. A garrison is an area in which criminal and political activity are tightly controlled by politically affiliated gang leaders. Historically, the political party that happened to be in power would use large-scale public housing projects to reward and geographically concentrate their supporters in garrison communities. Violent, politically affiliated criminal gangs would then enforce the political homogeneity of the garrison in exchange for a measure of exemption from law and order. At various points in Jamaica’s history both of the major political parties, the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) have created new housing projects that have turned into garrisons. Several seats in Parliament are now virtually guaranteed for each party by the garrisons they control.
Of the 60 Jamaican constituencies that determined the Jamaican Parliament’s lower house in the 1993 elections, Mark Figueroa and Amanda Sives identified 12 constituencies in which garrisons ranged from ‘dominant’ to ‘quite important’ in voting outcomes. They point out that a host of other constituencies were influenced to varying degrees by the fraud and intimidation inherent in garrison politics. With some additional monitoring from groups like the Carter Center, electoral violence and manipulation declined in 1997 and 2002, but the influence of garrison politics remains an undeniable problem.
According to a report commissioned by the Jamaican government (Kerr Report), the politically aligned gang leaders serve as unofficial brokers between the political leadership in parliament and the local communities. Residents who openly oppose the garrison’s dominant political party face violent retaliation from the gun-toting gangs. The gang leaders give their members of parliament an element of electoral certainty. The politicians who benefit return the favor by diverting government benefits to the garrisons in their constituency and turning a blind-eye to the criminal activities of the gangs.
The political arrangement allows many of the gangs to operate unchecked, with disastrous consequences for Jamaica’s poorest communities. Armed border disputes between garrisons make it difficult to maintain public infrastructure, exacerbating the slum-like conditions of the communities. Because gangs restrict movement between communities, they hamper labor mobility, transport, and the entry of new firms—entrenching an already deep level of poverty.
There is a precedent for cooperative efforts to reduce the political influence of the criminal gangs. In 1988 the leaders from the JLP and PNP acted on their concerns about rising political violence and malpractice in the garrisons. They entered into a Peace Agreement that included a Code of Ethics meant to restrict the practices of campaigning politicians. The President from each party signed the agreement which called for the appointment of an ombudsman to investigate claims of partisan distribution of government benefits, political violence, vote rigging, and similar abuses. Politicians found in violation of the agreement could be sanctioned, including the possibility of the withdrawal of major political party support for their candidacy. Unfortunately, the measure was ineffective. According to the government commissioned report, the violence and abuse in the next election after the agreement was perhaps the worst ever.
Letting the diaspora vote would significantly reduce the political influence of the criminal bosses that run garrison communities. To appeal to the Jamaican diaspora, candidates would have to endorse policies, including anti-crime measures, that are good for the nation—policies that may make Jamaica a more attractive place to live and work.
Absentee voting is an example of a change in a country’s meta-rules, the rules it uses to change its rules. (For another example of a meta-rule, see the discussion of the BRAC commission in the United States.) Jamaica needs reform at this level. As Peter Henry and Conrad Miller have shown, in many different policy areas, Jamaica has systematically made worse choices about its rules than Barbados, which started from very similar colonial origins and has very similar political institutions.
It is not that hard to allow for absentee balloting. Mexico, which also has many citizens who are residents in the United States, introduced absentee ballots in its Federal elections in 2006. There are many ways to make sure that these ballots do not lead to vote fraud. With modern information technology, Jamaicans living abroad could present themselves electronically via web video to register to vote. One could even use fingerprint readers or some other biometric device to verify someone’s identity. Overseas voters could be assigned to constituencies based on birth or last residence. There might even be more creative ways to reduce the influence of the garrisons, perhaps by assigning overseas voters disproportionally to constituencies with the highest crime rates.
Jamaica could let its diaspora vote in its next election. Doing so may be its best hope for a healthier form of political competition then and better policy now. It may be its only hope for moving away from the unstable trajectory created by bad policy out-migration of its well educated citizens.