Proposals to allow voting by Mexicans living outside the country to vote began circulating in Mexican political and academic circles at least a decade ago as the country undertook a reform of its electoral system and the migrant population in the United States boomed. The subject gained urgency under President Vicente Fox, who was elected in 2000. In a departure from his immediate predecessors, Fox regularly extolled the virtues of Mexicans who left the country for jobs abroad, calling them “heroes” for their hard work and for the large sums of money they sent home in remittances. Mexico received $20 billion in remittances, the great majority from the United States, in 2005, according to the Bank of Mexico.
The Fox administration also aggressively courted Mexican community organizations, hometown associations and business groups in the U.S., giving them opportunities to visit Mexico and make their views known. For example, the Foreign Ministry created a special “Consultative Council” of 105 elected representatives of Mexicans living in the United States and Mexico abroad which holds regular meetings with government officials, including the president. These efforts established a venue for lobbying in favor of absentee voting by Mexicans in the U.S.
In February 2005, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, overwhelmingly approved a law permitting absentee voting by Mexican living outside the country for the first time. Several objections were raised by the IFE, an independent body that organizes and oversees elections, regulates campaign spending and counts votes.
In particular, the IFE objected to provisions of the law that would have allowed Mexicans to register as voters abroad. It complained that that it would be logistically impossible to conduct the registration process with the same care and scrutiny normally applied to prevent fraud. In Mexico, voters must present proof of residence and identity to a local office of the elections institute and wait 20 days while the information is verified before collecting their electoral credential.
A compromise solution developed in the Senate that would allow Mexicans to cast absentee ballots only if they had already registered to vote in Mexico and had a valid electoral credential in their possession. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies approved the legislation with these provisions in June and Fox signed it into law on August 31. At the time, Fox compared it to the granting of suffrage to women in 1953 and declared that Mexico was for the first time honoring the core democratic principle of “one citizen, one vote.”
The law established an application period for absentee ballots from October 1, 2005 to January 15, 2006. It required applicants to provide photocopies of their voting credential as well as a document, such as a lease or utility bill that established their residential address abroad. The law also required that the applications be dispatched to Mexico only by registered mail.
Some leaders of Mexican organizations in the U.S. objected that the requirements were burdensome even for voters with the electoral credential. Many recent immigrants share housing and do not have documentation showing their home addresses. Mailing the application required going to a U.S. post office and paying $8 for the registered mail, in addition to postage. (Reforma, January 8, 2006, “Objecta Red ‘Obstáculo’ de IFE a Voto Exterior”) Doing so, and filling out a form that required a name and home a address, might be especially troublesome for the many Mexicans who are living in the United States illegally.
On November 7, 2005, Cándido Morales, director of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad, a branch of the Foreign Ministry, urged the elections institute to undertake a massive public information campaign among Mexicans in the U.S. The small number of applicants for absentee ballots—at the time only 733 had been received—reflected lack of familiarity with the application procedures, he argued. “I believe that the interest is there; what’s happening is that the information is not reaching them,” Moralies said. (La Opinion, November 8, 2005, “Acusan al IFE de Falta de Pormocíon del Voto Postal”.)
A few days later the same complaint was lodged directly with officials of the IFE at a meeting of the Consultative Council of Mexican leaders from the U.S. and Canada. In what press accounts described as a tense and confrontational session, the representatives of the expatriate population accused the elections institute of “lacking an adequate strategy” to ensure participation in absentee voting. Some of the representatives threatened that if the elections institute did not step up its public information efforts, they would wash their hands of the entire matter. (La Opinion, November 15, 2005, “Arremeten Contra el IFE.” La Jornada, November 11, 2005, Grupos de Migrantes Reclaman al IFE por las Trabas Burocráticas para Votar” )
At a news conference in Washington on November 17, 2005, Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of the IFE, offered two possible explanations for why eligible Mexicans—those with an electoral credential—were not applying for the absentee ballot in greater numbers:
“We have observed that on occasion some Mexicans do not want to register themselves yet because they do not know where they will be next year,” he said, arguing that large numbers of Mexicans move around within the United States.
“We have detected in community meetings that the central priority for Mexicans who reside, above all in an undocumented manner, in the United States is to regularize their immigration status and to have access to education and health services,” he said. In comparison to this priority it is difficult to know how much importance is given to voting in Mexican politics, but “at the end of this process it may be possible to show that probably interest in exercising the vote in Mexican elections is lower that what was originally expected.” (Sala de Prensa Virtual, www.ife.org.mx)
At the time Ugalde rejected complaints that the IFE had been insufficiently energetic about its efforts to drum up interest in absentee voting from abroad and said that it had asked the Mexican congress to approve additional funding for a public information campaign. Up to that point the IFE had primarily relied on Mexican consulates and community organizations to distribute application forms for the absentee ballot as a means of reaching Mexicans in the U.S.
On December 15, a month before the application period ended, the IFE announced that it was launching a public information campaign in the 15 U.S. cities with the largest concentrations of Mexican citizens. The announcement said the effort would include a broadcast and print advertising campaign. In addition, the IFE set up booths at airports and border crossing stations to provide information to Mexicans who were coming home for the holidays. (Sala de Prensa Virtual, www.ife.org.mx)