MEXICO CITY — Only 733 Mexicans living abroad have applied to vote during the first month of registration for their country's 2006 presidential election, officials said Monday, prompting the opening of election offices today in Tijuana and soon in other border cities to make it easier for expatriates to apply.
Mexican authorities estimate that as many as 4.2 million people living outside the country, mostly in the United States, are eligible to vote by mail in the July election. Congress on June 30 approved the absentee voting after years of debate.
But with no money to advertise the new voting rights and with presidential candidates barred from campaigning outside Mexico, some worry that after years of efforts by advocates of the vote, many expatriates won't bother to cast ballots.
Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute has a budget of about $130 million to administer the country's first vote abroad, with slightly more than half earmarked for postage costs.
Only citizens with voting cards issued by the election institute may request absentee ballots. To get a voting card, residents usually are required to apply in their Mexican hometown with a birth certificate, passport or consulate-issued ID card as identification. Applicants have to wait as long as a month before the paperwork is processed and the card issued.
About 80,000 expatriates have requested absentee voter forms since Oct. 1, when registration began, Mexican voting officials said.
But with the completed applications just a fraction of that number, the election institute is trying to streamline the system by opening offices in border cities where any citizen with proper identification can apply.
"Normally, you have to apply within your home state, but in order to facilitate the vote, we'll be opening these national centers along the border," said Patricio Ballados, the election institute's general coordinator for the vote abroad. Center locations, as well as absentee applications, are available online at www.ife.org.mx.
Electoral offices within Mexico are also adding staff to handle the increase in applications expected to occur when Mexicans head home in December for the holidays.
"If people apply for their voting card when they first get here," Ballados said, "we're going to try to get them a card within two weeks."
About 37 million Mexicans voted in the 2000 presidential election that ended the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party ends his six-year term in December 2006. Under the Mexican Constitution, he cannot run for reelection.
Polls indicate that the current front-runner is former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party. He faces National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderon, Fox's former energy secretary. And PRI contender Roberto Madrazo is expected to win his party's Nov. 13 primary.
Absentee voter forms must be returned by registered mail by Jan. 15, along with photocopies of the election institute voter card and a utility bill showing a home address.
More than 10 million adult Mexicans, about 10% of Mexico's total population, are believed to be living in the United States.
Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.