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In Mexico, protesters urge voters to nullify ballots

Organizers hope stacks of invalid ballots will show leaders how fed up many are with corruption, crime, poor schools and poverty. Critics call the voto nulo drive irresponsible and counterproductive.

June 16, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — When Luis Perez de Acha steps into the voting booth next month, he'll draw an angry X across the ballots for Congress and the state legislature.

The defaced ballots will not count. And that's fine with Perez de Acha, a tax lawyer from the northern state of Sonora. It's exactly what he wants.

Perez de Acha is part of an unusual protest movement that has sprouted up around Mexico in time for midterm congressional elections July 5. Fed up with politics as usual, many voters plan to deliberately render their ballots invalid by leaving them empty, checking off every candidate or scrawling epithets instead of polite Xs. (In Mexico, votes are marked by hand.)

Protesters hope a big tally of nullified votes will convey to political leaders just how angry many Mexicans are about the country's direction, the candidates and promises offered by its eight political parties. Disenchanted voters charge that self-interested politicians have failed to address long-standing public corruption, crime and the death count that comes with it, a sclerotic school system, poverty and, lately, an economic tailspin.

"At other times, people have taken up arms," said Perez de Acha, who heads one of several groups pushing ballot invalidation. "We're proposing a peaceful way."

The movement, known as voto nulo, or null vote, has surged abruptly from Mexico's blogosphere to become one of the hottest issues of the campaign season.

The drive has rattled political leaders and election officials, who were already expecting a record-low turnout among Mexico's nearly 78 million registered voters. At stake on July 5 are all 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, six governorships, and hundreds of state and municipal offices.

Criticized as irresponsible and counterproductive, the voto nulo drive has set off a debate over proper use of the ballot as a weapon of protest and what it means for Mexico's evolving democracy.

Voto nulo represents a thoroughly 21st century campaign. While traditional parties are plastering the land with campaign banners, null-vote promoters are making their case through blogs and a series of homemade YouTube spots. (One video portrays three men, representing the main political parties, seated ominously at a table as a clock counts down. At the appointed hour, they attack a cake that is shaped like Mexico, ripping it to crumbs.)

Various voto nulo drives have popped up around the country, apparently without coordination or common message, beyond a generalized disgust with the system.

Organizers communicate with supporters -- and critics -- via Internet chat rooms and more than half a dozen blogs, with names such as anulomivoto ("I'm nullifying my vote") and tacheatodos ("cross them all out"). One civic group is urging voters to nullify their ballots by writing in the name of a fictional candidate: Esperanza Marchita, whose name means "wilted hope."

Some respected Mexican commentators have given the protests a boost, declaring in newspaper columns that vote nullification is a legitimate way to air dissatisfaction. Ex-politicians have also joined in.

Dulce Maria Sauri, who headed the country's former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, endorsed the movement last week, saying Mexico's political system is hostage to powerful interests.

It's unclear how many voters plan to ruin their ballots. Supporters say 10% -- more than triple the rate of ballots ruled invalid in most recent elections -- would be a huge triumph.

Daniel Lund, a pollster and political analyst based in Mexico City, said 5% would allow organizers to claim success. But he said the Web-oriented campaign appeared narrow and had yet to take root in the streets.

Many officials say nullifying ballots is as bad as staying home on election day. Santiago Creel, a senator from the conservative National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon, called it an act of "political suicide."

Lawmakers with the three top parties lined up to denounce the voto nulo; a leftist congressman said it was akin to "dynamiting" democracy. And there's the vote-fraud angle, always big in Mexico: What if ballots left blank end up mysteriously marked during the tally?

Even Mexico's Roman Catholic bishops weighed in, urging nulistas to drop their campaigns as acts of "irresponsibility."

The debate comes as Mexico is trying to swap decades of one-party, top-down rule under the PRI for a genuinely competitive electoral democracy. Calderon's party accelerated that effort when it toppled the PRI to win the presidency in 2000.

Each of those parties and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party now control at least a few state governments -- a sign of growing political pluralism. Some analysts say null-vote activists ignore this progress and the parties' role in it.

But many Mexicans say there is little to show for having more democracy. Polls rank Mexican political parties near the bottom when it comes to public prestige.

"To vote for a party in our country is like choosing between cancer or hepatitis C, dying by the gallows or lethal injection," said Carlos Paez, a blogger pushing voto nulo from the western city of Guadalajara.

"We want a real democracy."

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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