Arroz con Polling Place

Mexicans living in the U.S. may no longer have to go home to vote in Mexico's elections

There are millions of Mexican nationals living in the United States--legally or illegally--a fact that has not escaped some Mexican politicians who will begin debating later this month whether to let that sizable expatriate community vote in Mexican national elections.

Mexican politicos on the stump in Arizona? Mexican voting booths in downtown Phoenix?

Some estimates put the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. as high as 15 percent of Mexico's registered voters. With close races predicted for Mexico's next presidential election in 2000, the immigrant vote could decide the outcome of the election.

The logistics as well as the political implications are expected to be part of a new report soon to be delivered to the Mexican Congress.

Many countries allow their citizens overseas to vote, although Americans are usually oblivious to foreign political campaigns. Candidates from the Dominican Republic routinely hold public rallies in New York neighborhoods, relying on the donations of their immigrant compatriots to fund their campaigns. And a slew of countries have held elections on U.S. soil, including Israel, Poland, South Africa, Peru and Argentina.

But Mexicans in the U.S. have been hard-pressed to take part in their homeland's political process. Yet no nation has more compatriots in a foreign country than Mexico has in the United States.

No reliable study has been made of the number of voters registered in Mexico living in the U.S. But estimates range from 2.5 million to 7.5 million people--roughly the equivalent of between 5 and 15 percent of Mexico's 53 million registered voters. A third are believed to be undocumented immigrants. (Only immigrants who have not opted for foreign citizenship would be eligible to vote, and then only in the presidential race.)

The year 2000 will mark the first modern Mexican presidential race with real electoral competition. The campaign seems sure to include at least three, and maybe four, strong candidates. The victor may end up pulling only a third of the vote.

"[The immigrant vote] would be definitive," says Arturo Santamaria, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of Sinaloa in Mazatlan. "Even if only those who now have voting cards could vote--say, 1.5 million people--in a very close election, they would be decisive."

If that happens, Santamaria says, the chances of opposition-party candidates improve. Studies, polls and symbolic votes since 1981 have shown that immigrants, who have already voted with their feet, would vote heavily against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the state party that has ruled Mexico since 1929.

Immigrants living in Arizona appear to be no exception. "There's a very strong sentiment against the PRI among Mexican immigrants in Arizona," says Isabel Garcia, an attorney with the Derechos Humanos Coalition of Arizona.

Garcia says the possibility of being able to vote in Mexico's elections is of great interest to expatriates living in Arizona. "I think it's a big issue," she says. "There haven't been massive demonstrations, such as in L.A. and Chicago. But I think people will be surprised at the level of interest."

Activists say Mexicans living abroad are deeply interested in the current debate because they often feel their political voices are not being heard anywhere.

"We have political rights in neither country," says Raul Ross, a worker at the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago and one of the leading immigrant activists on the issue. "We can't vote here because we're not citizens of the U.S. But in the country where we are citizens, they consider us second-class citizens. This is something that has bothered Mexicans in the U.S. since the 1920s."

The possibility of that changing grew from a 1996 Mexican constitutional reform. Mexicans living in the U.S. always had the right to vote; they just had to return to their voting districts to do so. The 1996 reform allows Mexicans to vote away from their home districts, which means outside Mexico.

In May, a Mexico City commission of 13 experts on politics, law, information technology and demographics formed to study the awesome array of questions surrounding how such a vote would be accomplished and how much it would cost.

Their recommendations are due this month. Then the Mexican Congress must decide whether it wants to proceed and, if so, what regulations and budget to establish.

Mexico will have to answer questions it's never asked before. Among them: How can it fashion a law that will be applicable in a foreign country? Will Mexico be able to stage a voter-registration drive in a foreign country, something that likely will need to take place? Will foreign citizens, businesses and lobbyists be allowed to contribute to Mexican campaigns? Would use of foreign media be restricted?

The whole issue really is, at heart, one for the global economy. In a world with fewer closed economies than ever, workers, like capital and goods, cross borders with greater ease. "This is going to become a phenomenon that's practically permanent," says Ross. "Today, there are countries with strong migrant traditions, but soon this is going to be worldwide."

The United States may become bitterly contested Mexican campaign territory before too long.

Immigrants in the U.S. already decide how a large part of Mexico votes. Immigrants support thousands of destitute Mexican villages, and many villages consult their native sons in the United States as to how they should vote; their opinion is decisive.

Ricardo Monreal, gubernatorial candidate for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Zacatecas, a major immigrant-sending state, visited California in March. He went to raise money, but also to convince immigrants to tell their people back in Zacatecas to vote for him, his aides say.

With immigrants voting, it's likely no serious candidate could avoid the pilgrimage north to court their support, since immigrants are also the Mexicans with the most disposable income. Mexican campaign rallies from Long Beach to New York might become commonplace.

How Americans would react to this and what foreign campaigning would mean for the sovereignty of Mexican elections is anyone's guess--and that worries some observers here.

Meanwhile, the issue poses some knotty bilateral logistical problems, too, primarily because absentee balloting likely won't be allowed.

Mexicans mistrust voting authorities as well as the mail system, preferring to pay things like telephone and electric bills in person. So no one is proposing that immigrants vote by mail. "If we allow it, we'll soon find that there's actually 50 million Mexicans living in the United States," Juan Antonio Guajardo, a PRD congressman, said recently.

The question is, where do they vote?
Mexico has 43 consulates in the U.S., more than any other country. But that won't be enough, especially in places like Los Angeles or Chicago, where the turnout could reach into the hundreds of thousands.

Without absentee balloting, the Mexican government would have to negotiate with cities across America regarding the placement of hundreds, if not thousands, of ballot boxes in city parks and on street corners. If not that, then Mexican officials might have to rent community halls to serve as polling places, at great expense.

The idea of Mexican ballot boxes in downtown Phoenix or Dallas, overseen by Mexican election officials, could cause tremendous local controversy across the country.

"We will have to deal with that, and it may be an insurmountable obstacle," says Carlos Heredia, a PRD congressman. "We're still thinking in terms of [negotiating with] the State Department and Washington, D.C., not the local governments all over the place."

Proponents also worry that the U.S. Border Patrol might raid polling places, since many voters could also be undocumented immigrants.

One possibility, suggests Heredia, might be a treaty of reciprocity, with Mexico then allowing U.S. ballot boxes in Cuernavaca, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico City and other gringo haunts. But whether both governments are capable of it, and whether U.S. local governments sign on, remain big questions.

The debate is just beginning, and a decision is not expected before next year. The Congress may also decide voting abroad just isn't feasible in time for the 2000 election.

Still, the larger issues will remain.
"When you talk about North America and you only talk about trade flows, financial flows, commercial integration and so forth, you're only postponing the question as to how to deal with these things," says Heredia. "Even if for 2000, this whole thing ends up not being possible, we will have to go back to this again and again because it's part of our [North American] economic integration."

Contact Sam Quinones at his online address: samquinones@compuserve.com

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