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Ahead of Mexico's election, a push for voters – outside Mexico

Why We Wrote This

The responsibilities – and rights – of a citizen don’t always end at the border. When Mexicans cast their votes for a new president this summer, many of them will be expatriates, as more Mexicans living abroad embrace their political power.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Mexican nationals waited to register to vote at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles Jan. 16.

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Marisol Ibarra moved to the United States from the Mexican border state of Nuevo León seven years ago. But if she wants to stay connected to home, she says, she has to vote. Otherwise, “you have no say in your country,” she says. “You have no right to complain.” Over and over, though, she heard Mexican colleagues and neighbors in her Houston suburb mention they weren’t registered for the upcoming presidential election. Everyone agreed it was important, but life was getting in the way. Since then, Ms. Ibarra has helped roughly 200 Mexican expatriates register to vote – some of the about 150,000 who experts estimate could cast ballots this year. It’s a dramatic leap from 2006, when less than 1 percent of eligible expats cast a ballot. And 150,000 is hardly insignificant, since the 2006 race was decided by about 240,000 votes. Mexicans abroad have always played an important role back home, from culture to economy. But now, analysts say, they are waking up to their political influence – and consulates, individuals, and community organizations have raced to help them register.

For generations Mexicans have been moving abroad, mostly to the United States, where they’ve often tried to leave behind the troubled politics of home.

“I never considered voting in Mexico” after moving to the US, says Sergio Guerrero, a shuttle driver in Houston, who left the central state of Puebla more than two decades ago in search of work.

“Why would I vote for the corrupt politicians that created the conditions that [pushed me] to leave in the first place?” Mr. Guerrero asks.

But Mexicans abroad play an important role back home, largely in the form of remittances, and, observers say, they are starting to wake up to the influence they can have politically, too.

Roughly 12 million Mexicans live abroad, and those eligible to vote “could play a very important role, or even decide this year’s election” on July 1, says Rafael Fernández de Castro, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “This is enormous. But it’s only the potential.”

Mexicans first voted in presidential elections from abroad in 2006, but turnout has been unexpectedly low. An estimated 4.2 million Mexicans outside the country were eligible to vote in 2006, and roughly 32,000 cast ballots, or less than 1 percent, according to Víctor Alejandro Espinoza, director of the Department of Public Administration Studies at Mexico’s College of the Northern Border (COLEF). In 2012, there was a slight uptick in participation, to about 40,000 ballots cast from abroad.

But a recent reform allowing voters to renew their required IDs at Mexican Consulates and register to vote online could be a game-changer in this year’s race. As of April, more than half a million voter IDs have been delivered to Mexicans abroad, and close to 670,000 requests for IDs have been made.

An increase in recognition of the importance and potential power of voters outside of Mexico has led to more efforts by consulates, individuals, and community organizations to get expatriates involved. Mexicans abroad, particularly those in the US, play a key role in bridging economies and cultures. Their economic contributions back home – and in some cases their leadership from afar – position them to express their say in how Mexico moves forward, experts say.

“There are millions of people living in the US that are very highly connected to their family in Mexico. They travel back and forth, they send remittances, they set up businesses,” says Professor Fernández de Castro. “We are seeing more people vote [from abroad] in each election, and that will only be strengthened. This compliments the increasingly transnational way of living.”

Getting out the vote

For Marisol Ibarra, who moved to the United States from the border state of Nuevo León seven years ago, if she wants to stay connected to home, she has to vote.

“If you don’t vote, you have no say in your country. You have no right to complain,” she says.

But back in February, she started to worry. Work colleagues and neighbors in the Houston suburb where she lives mentioned over and over how they weren’t prepared to vote this year. Everyone agreed it was important, but life was getting in the way.

In some cases, their voter ID had expired while they were away from home. Others had children turning 18 in the US, about to vote for the first time. Sure, there was new legislation that would allow them to get their paperwork in order before the registration deadline on March 31, but everyone she talked to seemed put off by the bureaucracy and the need to take time off school or work.

Then she had an idea. She was seated next to someone from the Mexican Consulate in Houston at an event organized by the Association of Mexican Entrepreneurs, where she’s a chapter manager.

“Can we do something about this together?” she remembers asking.

In just over a month before the registration deadline, she helped set up expedited appointments – often on the weekend – to get roughly 200 people registered to vote from abroad. Other individuals and organizations in the US and Mexico also have upped their outreach this year. The Mexican consulate in Houston conducted traveling consular days to reach distant communities so people could renew their IDs.

A social-media-focused effort called Voto Chilango – based in Mexico City, where for the first time voters abroad can participate in the mayoral race this year – set up a 24-hour hotline in the US to answer questions about voter registration.

Fernando Villanueva, his wife Dolores Boone, and their daughter, who recently turned 18, all benefited from Ms. Ibarra’s outreach.

They’ve been in the US for about three years, but the Mexican elections matter to them.

“If I had the opportunity to go home tomorrow, I would,” says Mr. Villanueva, who moved to Missouri and then Texas for an opportunity with a Mexican manufacturing company. “There’s a lot of poverty in Mexico, but the majority of Mexicans aren’t narcos or rapists,” he says, alluding to President Trump’s comments on the 2015 campaign trail. “We need work and the opportunities in Mexico aren’t sufficient.”

Experts estimate about 150,000 Mexicans will cast ballots from abroad this year. That’s not insignificant, given that the 2006 race was decided by roughly 240,000 votes.

“Our votes are equal to more than [the eligible voters in] some states in Mexico,” says Rosendo Villarreal, Ibarra’s husband.

That underscores a key shortcoming of voters abroad, however: they don’t vote as a solid bloc. That’s top of mind this election, where the leading politician is known for his populist rhetoric and only recently walked back threats to reject the North American Free Trade Agreement upon his victory. Third-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was polling at 38 percent in Mexico as of early April, 18 points ahead of second-place candidate Ricardo Anaya Cortés.

While Villanueva, a businessman, and many of his peers living in the US say they support Mr. Anaya from the National Action Party, Fernández de Castro believes the diaspora in the US will be backing AMLO “in a higher proportion” this year.

“It’s not a homogeneous group,” says Professor Espinoza, from COLEF. A Mexican in the US without legal documentation may not be as likely to vote as someone there with a work visa, and when they do vote, their priorities back home likely differ, he says. AMLO, for example, appeals to the have-nots in Mexico, with promises to stick up for the poor and little fear in calling out Trump as a “bully.” 

The one thing voters outside Mexico have in common? They “are solidly anti-PRI,” Espinoza says, referring to Mexico's ruling party, which was in control for nearly seven decades. (It was the “perfect dictatorship,” Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously quipped.) The PRI returned to power in 2012 under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, who cannot run for reelection.

“They are seeing Mexico from the outside,” Espinoza says of voters abroad. “For many, the reason they left is associated with the PRI.”

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