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Column 080105 Salazar

Monday, August 1, 2005

 

Will immigrants vote in Mexico’s 2006 election?

 

By Maite Salazar

 

For many years one of the most discussed topics among Mexican immigrants in El Norte was whether they would ever again be allowed to participate in Mexico’s electoral process, which at best was perceived as rigid and unyielding to change.  Earlier this month however, the Mexican government granted expatriates a limited right to vote by certified mail in the upcoming 2006 presidential election.  Without estimating the likely levels of participation, many experts have suggested that this historic change actually represents de facto recognition of the billions of U.S. dollars that the expatriates annually send back to their families in Mexico.

 

The 2006 presidential campaign promises to be especially bruising, even by the brutal standards of Mexican politics. Clearly one of the most crucial questions now facing Mexico’s three major political parties is whether the expatriates, (99 percent of whom reside in the U.S., will seize this opportunity and vote in the presidential plebiscite.

 

The 2000 presidential election brought a transfer of executive (but not legislative) power from the previously dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the essentially regional opposition, the National Action Party (PAN). This milestone was achieved because a majority of the Mexican body politic finally coalesced to end a system that allowed the presidential incumbent to anoint his successor through the “dedazo,” or by pointing a finger at the chosen one.  Expatriate Mexicans largely supported the candidacy of Vicente Fox Quesada, whom they saw as a fundamental agent of change for the country they loved but had left for better opportunities.

 

Now, less than a year before the next national elections, vast numbers of Mexicans — including most expatriates — view Fox’s presidency to date as a failure.

 

Various authorities have estimated the pool of eligible expatriate Mexican voters at between 10 and 11 million.  However, it appears that only 4 million or so are properly registered by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).  Going by the logical assumption that few if any of the expatriates, documented or otherwise, will return to Mexico simply to register to vote in a restricted presidential election, even universal participation (which no one expects) will produce a potential turnout of less than 40 percent.  

 

This diminished proportion of eligible absentee voters will then face additional hurdles in the quest to vote:

 

  • Eligible voters will have to obtain a ballot request form from either the IFE website, or from the nearest Mexican consulate or embassy, between Oct. 1, 2005 and Jan. 15, 2006.  They will be required to complete the forms and include copies of their voter registration cards — thus forcing them to locate years or decades-old voter cards.
  • Undocumented U.S. residents without Internet access presumably will not want to be seen anywhere near consular offices for fear of attracting attention from U.S. immigration authorities.
  • The cost of expatriate absentee voting is estimated to be between US$130 and US$250 million, and some costs will probably be passed on to voters.  One proposal would charge expatriate voters up to US$18 each for the cost of processing, verification, and international certified mail for each ballot.
  • Ballots will be received and returned by voters via certified mail — thus requiring many reluctant, undocumented immigrants to face a quasi-U.S. government office, request a relatively uncommon mail service, and incur an additional expense — all during business hours when many of them normally work.

Mexican expatriates, and those who perceive themselves as Mexican-Americans or Americans of Mexican ancestry, clearly have diverse opinions concerning their homeland, and whether they will (or even should) avail themselves of this first limited access to Mexico’s political process.  (The range of opinions we received is appended below.)

 

Nevertheless, based on our observations and interaction with Mexican immigrants in California, New York and Nevada, it appears that most potential voters are either disinterested or remain disillusioned (and stridently negative) about the political process in Mexico.  Some who are active in their home states or municipalities definitely are interested in voting because of a sense of civic responsibility.  The vast majority, however, don’t trust politicians or even the Mexican postal system, nor do they believe that being able to vote for a single presidential candidate is worth either the effort or the expense of time and money. 

 

A detailed study in 2003 by distinguished professors at Harvard and the University of California San Diego, regarding expatriate voting patterns in the 2000 election and predictors for 2006, estimated that perhaps a quarter-million expatriates, or a statistically meaningless 3 percent, voted in 2000.  Notwithstanding the new, nominally liberalized absentee voting process, the study models predicted that a range of 265,000-1.1 million persons living in the U.S. would vote in the 2006 Mexican presidential election.  (It should be noted that this mathematical range was estimated prior to the passage of the actual absentee voting plan, which is more restrictive than most analysts could have predicted.) 

 

Although 3-15 percent of the eligible expatriates might not represent an impressive harvest of votes, the nonvoters still have a huge and potentially pivotal role to play: that of helping to get out the votes of their relatives and friends at home.  In this regard, the expatriates do seem to agree that they can best influence the outcome at every electoral level by instructing their families and acquaintances in Mexico (the beneficiaries of their financial largess) on how to vote.

 

Thus, the 2006 presidential campaign may witness the advent of a totally new and unexpected “dedazo,” one that arises from the hardworking hands of millions of expatriates and pointed in the direction of the candidate who best appeals to the expatriates’ hopes and aspirations for themselves in the U.S. and their families in Mexico.  This would be a fitting post-script to the remittances, and one that the Mexican political elite never anticipated. 

 

APPENDIX

 

To survey the attitudes of eligible potential Mexican voters in the U.S., we developed a questionnaire and solicited opinions from several dozen individuals, mostly immigrants, but also from the proverbial (non-English speaking) man on the street, family members, business associates, etc.  Although the polling sample was not scientifically drawn, the resulting opinions were strong and compelling.  We received opinion data from New York, California, Washington State, and most importantly Las Vegas, Nevada, where the Mexican immigrant population numbers at least 300,000 and is of a purely “Mexican” character.

 

The opinions received conform to the following ranges:

 

  • Respondent wants to vote but is not registered, and either cannot afford to return to Mexico to register, cannot risk a round-trip border crossing, or has obligations in the U.S. preventing such a trip.
  • Respondent doesn’t know if he or she is registered, doesn’t know how to find out, and is too busy working, supporting a family, et cetera, to research the matter further.
  • Respondent does not believe his or her vote has ever made a difference, nor will it make a difference in next year’s election.  The politicians and the system are both irredeemably corrupt.
  • Only the biggest thieves run for president.
  • Respondent will vote if paid to do so (not the other way around.)  One respondent reported having been given a bicycle to vote.  Or, will vote for whichever candidate will help get him or her legalized status in the U.S.
  • Respondent voted for Fox and the PAN five years ago and nothing changed.
  • Respondent wants to vote for the entire ticket, not just the presidential contest.
  • Respondent doesn’t trust the mail system to carry his or her vote, so why bother?  Instead, respondent plans to advise family in Mexico on whom to vote for.
  • Respondent remits money to relatives in Mexico; believes he or she will fulfill his or her voting duty by directing these relatives to vote for a party or candidate.
  • Respondent’s life is now in the U.S. and he or she is not interested in voting.
  • Respondent will vote, no matter what, because it is his or her duty as a Mexican.  (This was an uncommon response.)

The responses of Mexican-Americans were similar:

 

  • Why should respondent vote in a Mexican election, when his or her life, citizenship, family, and career are all in the U.S.?
  • Respondent moved to the U.S. and achieved U.S. citizenship because the Mexican system was totally corrupt.  Why vote in a fixed election?  Instead, tell family members living in Mexico to vote against the PRI (historically the biggest and worst crooks, per the respondent.)
  • Border area resident’s desire to vote just across the border rather than trust the Mexican postal system.
  • The registration and absentee voting process is too complicated and time-consuming.  Instead, respondent will study the candidates and parties and advise relatives in Mexico who to vote for.

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Maria Teresa (“Maite”) Salazar, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from northern Mexico and is descended from the famous Californio patriot Joaquin Murrieta, graduated Magna Cum Laude from San Diego State University’s International Business Program.  Bilingual and bicultural, Ms. Salazar has extensive experience in communication and business development in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.  Ms. Salazar is the president of Salazar Communications, a Las Vegas-based Hispanic/Latino marketing and public relations firm, which also has offices in New York.  She can be reached at maites@salacomm.com.