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Expatriate Mexican Voting Is Feasible, Panel Reports

Election: Findings may fuel highly charged debate by legislators. Up to 7 million living in U.S. could be affected.

November 13, 1998|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — A team of electoral experts Thursday declared that it is technically feasible to grant as many as 7 million Mexicans living in the United States the right to vote in this country's next presidential election, a step likely to have broad repercussions on both sides of the border.

The experts' report, commissioned by the Federal Electoral Institute, lays the foundation for an emotion-charged debate in Mexico's Congress on whether absentee voting by Mexicans abroad is not only possible but politically wise.

Armed with the experts' findings, the electoral institute will report to Congress next week on how to move forward.

Proponents see an absentee-ballot system as an inevitable extension of Mexico's evolving democracy, enfranchising millions of economic exiles who until now have been denied a vote in their home country as well as their adopted land. But critics warn that given the huge numbers, an absentee vote could have unpredictable consequences in Mexico--and could even cause a backlash in the U.S. by raising issues of divided loyalties.

What's beyond doubt is that adding a voting bloc of millions of Mexicans residing--both legally and illegally--in the United States could dramatically affect the outcome of the 2000 election. That vote is already regarded as a milestone for Mexico; opposition parties believe that they have a chance to end seven decades of unbroken rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"Before, it didn't matter much whether we voted or not, but [now] the people themselves are reforming Mexico, and that has made it matter," said Alejandro Garza, a 51-year-old Sacramento resident who moved to the U.S. when he was 3. Garza joined other green card-holding Mexican citizens who came to Mexico City this week to lobby for the right to vote abroad.

"I can't vote either in the U.S. or in Mexico," he said. "I can't go to my consulate and vote like Argentines or Nicaraguans or South Africans do"--a reference to the absentee voting rights enjoyed by citizens of 43 other countries, including U.S. citizens living abroad. "And yet we Mexicans in the U.S. send $5 billion every year back home to our families. We want a say."

Straw votes and polls suggest that a large majority of expatriate Mexicans would support opposition parties rather than the PRI. Given that 35 million Mexicans voted in the 1994 presidential election, the absentee vote could be 15% of the 2000 tally--although some doubt that there would be such high interest.

Emilio Zebadua, an electoral institute member and coordinator of the initiative, said: "Nobody has proven that it's an anti-PRI vote, but, in any case, you can't exclude constitutionally entitled and valid voters because of how you think they might vote."

Congress may decide the matter as soon as mid-December, but the contentious issue could take a few months to resolve. By then it could be too late to change electoral laws, organize ballot boxes, and take care of voters' lists and other logistics in time for the 2000 election, delaying the absentee vote until 2006.

The mechanics are indeed daunting. The expert team estimated in a preliminary report that about 8.6 million Mexican citizens will be living in the United States at the time of the vote in June 2000. About 7.1 million Mexicans would be 18 or older and thus old enough to vote, the panel said.

California is by far the most important magnet for migrants, attracting 50% of all northbound settlers, and Los Angeles draws the greatest number of Mexicans of all U.S. cities.

The proposal would not extend the absentee vote to Mexicans who have become U.S. citizens.

The experts put forward six possible methods, ranging from voting by mail or even by phone to setting up ballot boxes at Mexican consulates. The proposals would cost between $76 million and $350 million. Some methods would be more restrictive, allowing only those with official voting credentials issued in Mexico to vote; other proposals would make it easier for more people to vote.

Under the most restrictive plan, about 1 million people could be eligible. The broadest plan would potentially embrace all 7 million.

The prospect of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans lining up at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles and other cities on election day prompted political scientist Sergio Aguayo to comment recently: "One of the strongest worries [in the U.S.] is that this could feed the 'specter of the reconquest.' In some frontier states and in many conservative circles in the United States, there has been a concern for decades about the unceasing Mexican migration . . . and that at this rate Mexico could reconquer territories lost 150 years ago."

But Luis Pelayo, a Mexican-born immigrants rights activist living in Chicago, said few Americans are bothered about foreign residents exercising rights in their home countries.

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