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Mexico's Absentee Voter Drive Slow in U.S.

November 26, 2005|Sam Enriquez and Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writers

Jose Luis Torres still carries his Mexican voter card 35 years after moving to the United States.

But even though he could use it for the first time to vote by mail in Mexico's presidential election next year, he says he may not bother.

"I'd like to vote, but for who?" said Torres, an Orange County welder who visits his hometown in the state of Michoacan less frequently as the years pass. "When you've been gone a decade, that's a lot. Many of us have been gone 20 or 30 years."

Mexico's march to democracy after seven decades of one-party rule was supposed to take a giant leap this year, as millions of Mexicans living abroad were granted voting rights.

But Mexico has diminished in importance for many immigrants as they raise families and settle into the workaday world north of the border.

That may help explain why only 2,100 out of an estimated 4 million Mexicans eligible to vote in the United States have mailed in requests for absentee ballots, as the voter registration drive approaches its halfway mark.

The low registration rate, like the long road to winning the absentee vote, is a measure of the complex and contradictory relationship between Mexico and its expatriates.

Mexican immigrants say they love their homeland, but not how it's run, with the cumbersome registration process a tedious reminder of a Mexican bureau cracy that forces the poor to wait hours in line for the simplest transaction.

Mexican leaders say they are proud of their U.S. workers, but privately acknowledge that the exodus spotlights their nation's failures.

Torres, a legal U.S. resident, said he never intended to turn his back on his country. He spent years building a house in his home village, Emiliano Zapata, and when he was younger he traveled back at least once a year. But with the arrival of children, and then grandchildren, Torres slowly drifted away from his homeland.

President Vicente Fox promised immigrants the vote during his 2000 campaign, part of a broader strategy to strengthen ties with the more than 10 million Mexicans living in the United States. More than any previous Mexican president, he praised their work and welcomed them back for vacations, seeing their long-term potential as a lobbying force in Washington.

Mexicans living abroad will send an estimated $20 billion in remittances this year to relatives back home, the country's second-largest revenue source behind petroleum.

"Each vote cast is a vote for Mexico and a vote for the communities of Mexicans living abroad," Fox told 100 Mexicans visiting from U.S. cities this month. They are advisors to a government institute that he created three years ago to link the two countries.

But so far, the official rhetoric doesn't match the interest among immigrants.

"We're seeing total apathy," said Francisco Javier Moreno, a visiting advisor from Los Angeles and president of a Southern California federation of Michoacan hometown clubs. "It's very depressing. We've fought for years to have a voice, only to have this kind of result. I think if we have 4,000 who actually vote, it'll be a lot."

Some blame the way Mexico is handling absentee vote applications, a process that critics say is intentionally cumbersome.

Until last week, applicants without access to the Internet had to make trips to a Mexican Consulate and a U.S. post office. Completed applications must be sent via registered mail, along with photocopies of a Mexican voter card and a utility bill or other proof of residency.

Others say many immigrants don't have the required Mexican voter credential, and that forcing them to return to Mexico to apply for one is preventing many people from participating. On Wednesday, more than 70 immigrants from the state of Michoacan caravaned in buses from Los Angeles to Tijuana to apply for voter cards. They will have to make the trip again in two weeks to pick up the cards.

Volunteers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and other cities with large Mexican populations are now scrambling to help compatriots fill out the applications.

In Southern California, federations of immigrant clubs have set up tables at supermarkets and other public places, such as Plaza Mexico in Lynwood.

"A lot of people say it's difficult to fill out the forms," Maritonia Sanchez said Saturday at Plaza Mexico, where she estimated that she had handed out voter registration forms to more than 40 people a day. "But it's really not hard. It takes only a few minutes."

Still, volunteers such as Sanchez say that few people have heard of the voter signups because Mexico's Congress didn't approve a budget for promotional advertising in the United States. Moreover, Mexico's new voting law forbids candidates to campaign and raise funds abroad.

"How do you generate interest in an election? Media and candidates," said Daniel Lund, a Mexico City pollster. "Mexican voters in the U.S. were denied both, either purposefully or inadvertently."

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