Mexicans in US could get new election clout

Mexico's Congress is weighing several initiatives that would allow absentee voting for emigrants.

In a testament to the economic and political muscle of Mexicans north of the border, their government has put on the front burner an initiative to allow them to send votes home. The measure, expected to be in place by Mexico's 2006 presidential election, would give Mexicans abroad, most of them living in the United States, a powerful lever for influencing who runs their country - and could change the shape of future elections here.

Unlike the US, Mexico lacks a provision for absentee voting. Mexican law requires that votes be cast within the country's borders. This keeps many émigrés from voting: Their lack of documentation make the border crossing too risky.

The fuse for the absentee-ballot system was lighted in 1996, when the idea was approved by the Mexican Congress. But nothing has happened since. Mexican politicians, namely those from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which lorded over politics for seven decades, were cool to the remote vote. They buried the issue largely because they saw the migrant vote benefiting opposition parties, especially the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), says Leticia Calderón, a researcher at Mexico City's Mora Institute who has studied the initiative.

This dawdling left most émigrés unable to cast ballots in the historic 2000 presidential election, when Vicente Fox won the presidency and ousted the PRI.

Now, the idea of granting Mexicans abroad a political voice is tough to ignore. Last year, Mexicans in the US sent $13.3 billion to their families back home, making remittances the country's largest source of foreign investment. A chunk of the remittances, what some Mexicans in the US dub their "poverty tax," supports hometown projects that local governments aren't funding.

"We may live in the US, but we own houses in Mexico, have family there, send money home," says José Jacques Medina, a Mexican community organizer based in Los Angeles. "We need to work as one country and build the binational concept."

Mexico's Congress will weigh several proposals, but the version pushed by the Fox government is favored to pass. It requires immigrants in the US to show an election card to a Mexican official, at a consulate for example, or prove dual nationality. Critics of the setup say it would exclude about 7 million of the estimated 10 million Mexicans who live in the US but lack the proper paperwork.

"People will be left out because of bureaucracy," says Mr. Medina. "We need to push all the way so that every Mexican can vote, not just a percentage." He says that the 45 Mexican consulates in the US could help Mexicans register.

Medina, along with some major Mexican organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in California, says that Mexicans should be able to vote for Congress as well, not just for the president.

These complaints aside, some voter advocates say they see progress in Mexico's attempt to shed its dismissive attitude toward its citizens abroad. "The government now sees this group as important and wants to close in on it," says Humberto Garza, an expert on Mexican foreign relations at the College of Mexico here. "It is interested in raising the political consciousness in the US Mexican communities independently of how they will vote."

If the measure goes through, it would provide a better idea of how living abroad has shaped the politics of the largest ethnic minority group in the US. But how they will vote remains hazy. "The Mexican population in the US is very diverse, and the vote will reflect this," says Ms. Calderón.

Mexicans in the US may back candidates who push Washington to adopt a more open immigration policy, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. Things could get touchy for US lawmakers if voters lean toward candidates from the PRD, which calls for undocumented Mexican workers in the US to be legalized.

"I think this group will cut their own voting trends," says Mr. Garza. "These people left Mexico feeling badly treated, disappointed with the working and social conditions in Mexico. They'd probably vote for a leftist or populist candidate."

This has the left-wing PRD building its presence in the US. Already it counts more political offices abroad than any other Mexican party.

Still, Mexicans abroad could favor Mr. Fox's National Action Party (PAN) for pushing President Bush to ease immigration rules. But the PAN could also be punished for failing to improve the economy, which keeps Mexicans from returning home.

Creating what would be one of the world's largest international ballot systems means taking a rough logistical road - with a high price: Estimates range from $74 million to $240 million per Mexican election. And an Internet-based voting system is most likely, which could be open to fraud.

There is also the question of ensuring politicians stick to Mexican campaign-financing laws and media guidelines while they stump abroad. Mexican presidential candidates already campaign in parts of the US with little supervision. "Whatever isn't prohibited, they'll do," warns Medina.

Creating a foolproof system will be tough, but the main issue, say most cross-border voting proponents, is to at least get the system in place. "Time is running out to get it running before the 2006 election," says Calderón. "It's not perfect, but Fox's proposal has the best chance of passing through Congress."

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