Where Mexico's voters are: here

Mexicans in the US draw campaigners for July elections.

Eddie Varn Levy is a young Los Angeles economist and legal consultant. He is also running for Congress.

Sound like just another story about Hispanics in American politics? Not exactly. You see Mr. Varn is a candidate for Congress in Mexico, just like Chicago resident Ral Ross.

The candidacies are indicative of the growing clout of millions of Mexicans living outside the country and largely in the United States. For many decades, Mexico's political powers wrote off its emigrants, even disdained them for leaving. But in recent times, Mexico's migrants are increasingly demanding a voice in their home country's strengthening democracy.

Varn belongs to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Mr. Ross to the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The center-right National Action Party (PAN) is proposing creation of an additional congressional district that would give Mexicans in the US 10 representatives in the 500-member Congress.

And with a conservatively estimated 1.5 million Mexicans in the US fully eligible to vote in July elections, Mexico's political parties are paying more attention to the Mexicans abroad. Mexican presidential candidates campaign in US cities with heavy Mexican populations, while Mexicans residing in the US lobby for the right to vote in elections without leaving the US.

"When you realize [Mexican emigrants] send about $8 billion a year to Mexico," says Varn, "that alone says it's right they should have a voice."

Varn, who is almost guaranteed to be a member of the next Congress because of his high placement on the PRI party's proportional candidate list, says his focus will be representing the emigrant community.

The PRD's Ross, who has lived in the US for 14 years, is an activist for migrants rights' and author of the book "Voto sin Fronteras" - The Borderless Vote. Yet while Mexicans abroad are commanding more attention, that doesn't mean many of them are going to be able to vote in their country's July 2 presidential election.

With no absentee voting system, and with the number of ballots that will be available in Mexico's northern border cities for migrant voters tightly limited, Mexican emigrants find themselves in a sense in the same democratic transition as the country as a whole.

Guaranteeing a vote to emigrant Mexicans "is a pending issue," says Jaime Rivera Velsquez, director of election organization for Mexico's Federal Election Institute (FEI). Since millions of Mexicans live in the US, organizing a vote away from home would be unprecedented, he says. "It's technically possible, but it would be huge and complex."

Actually, the opposition-controlled lower house of Congress last year attempted to pass legislation to allow Mexicans living abroad to vote, but the proposal was shot down by the PRI-controlled Senate. In the kind of close presidential race shaping up this year, more than a million votes cast outside the country has the potential for tipping the results.

Several studies have shown that expatriate Mexicans are not markedly more anti-PRI than those at home, but the idea that Mexicans outside the country might determine the next president was simply intolerable for many politicians. PRI candidate Varn says his party opposed the move because it saw how complex and costly a foreign voting system would be. "I support as much as anybody the right of Mexicans to vote abroad," he says. "But we have to first work out the realities that no one wants to talk about." The opposition "wanted to push this through to have something to campaign about."

Without an absentee voting system, Mexican political leaders began envisioning large numbers of US-residing Mexicans heading to border cities to vote.

Leading opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox of the PAN predicted at an April appearance in Jurez that 400,000 "friends of Fox" in the US would stream home to help defeat the PRI for the first time in 71 years.

This year, a civic fervor stoked by an unprecedentedly competitive presidential election, may encourage more Mexicans to travel from, say, Denver to Ciudad Jurez to vote. But thousands of them may find themselves with no ballot to mark.

Ironically, the explanation for ballot scarcity is the opposition's fear of electoral fraud. After decades of watching the ruling PRI steal elections, opposition parties have pushed through electoral laws strictly limiting the number of ballots issued to each voting site. Also limited is the number of "special voting stations" for Mexicans who on election day find themselves outside the district they are registered in.

Local electoral councils, which include political party representatives, have actually approved more special voting stations than for any election since Mexico's electoral law was broadly overhauled in 1993. The total ballots at all the special stations will add up to 48,000.

But federal electoral authorities say their efforts to set up even more of the special voting stations, primarily in response to interest among Mexicans in the US, ran into stiff resistance among some local electoral councils. "The objections remain strong because there is still a lack of confidence in the process," says Mr. Rivera.

Ciudad Jurez is one place where the IFE's push for more special voting sites was rebuffed. Barring a change at council meetings today, the city will only have three of the 15 special polling sites it could legally have. "If IFE can really prove to us that these special sites can operate with full guarantees for the voters, we'll favor" adding more, says Csar Jauregui, electoral affairs secretary for the PAN in Jurez.

With the vision of thousands of disappointed would-be voters, some parties have changed strategy on the migrant vote. The PAN is now telling US-resident Mexicans to try to travel all the way to the district in which they are registered. That may discourage a lot of people from voting," says Mara Hernandez of the PAN, "but for now that's the best that can be done."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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