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Absentee voting difficult for many Mexican citizens abroad

David Pineda's voter ID card. Personal information was removed.
David Pineda's voter ID card. Personal information was removed.

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This summer, Mexicans head to the polls to elect a new president. California is home to the largest Mexican population in the U.S., but many potential absentee voters living here won’t be voting in the election. They won the right to vote as absentees in 2006, but turnout in that historic election was disappointingly low, and this time around, it’s looking even worse. KPCC’s Lauren Osen has more on why.

The drug war and national security are at the top of the political agenda for many Mexican citizens living abroad.

Minerva Lopez has been living in the U.S since 2008, and like thousands of Mexicans living abroad, she’s still directly affected by the political system there. "We even got death threats when we were in Mexico ... a number of my cousins have been killed because of violence, or drug-related violence—so it’s better to be on this side," Lopez said.

But her voice won’t be counted in this election, because she did not register to vote. Electoral officials say the problem isn't voter apathy, but an overly complicated system. In order to register, Mexican citizens must first obtain a voter ID card that can only be issued on Mexican soil at least six months before the election.

Dalia Moreno-Lopez works for the Federal Electoral Institute, a non-partisan organization that runs Mexico’s elections. She wants to see more people register to vote, but despite changes she helped make to boost registration, fewer people actually applied to vote this year than in 2006. " If you don’t have the electoral voting card, if you never, ever get it in Mexico, you cannot vote. This is the requirement for all elections in Mexico. You know, this is like your boarding pass to the elections," Moreno-Lopez said. In California, only a little more than 12,500 people applied by the January 15th deadline, 8,000 fewer than in the last election.

A group of community leaders including Juan Jose Gutierrez recently gathered outside the Mexican consulate to protest the difficult system. “We believe that Mexican authorities have a failed strategy in getting out the vote abroad,” Gutierrez said.

Activists such as Gutierrez argue the process disenfranchises Mexican citizens living abroad, who cannot afford to return home, either because of the expense or their legal status. And even for those who do have a voting card, mailing in the ballot can cost upwards of $30.

Federal Electoral Institute's Dalia Moreno-Lopez agrees. "It’s very complicated for citizens and for the electoral organism to prepare," she says.

Moreno says she’d like to see the system reformed — but that’s unlikely because it’s up to the Mexican Congress, which is controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or “PRI.” That party won only 4 percent of the absentee vote in 2006. Political scientists think that’s because the PRI controlled an economy that may have caused many current immigrants to leave in search of better jobs.

In addition to the registration obstacles, federal electoral law in Mexico prohibits political parties from campaigning to voters abroad, and fundraising outside of the country. "You know, it’s one of the contradictions, I’d say, in the law. I think it’s very hard for Mexicans living abroad to know, how can they vote for somebody they really don’t know. It’s not near the people there," Moreno says.

Still, voter apathy plays a large role. Dulce Flores encounters hundreds of potential voters in her daily work as a supervisor at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles. "I think the main reason why they did not register is because they don’t have the information. They do, they hear it, but they never pay attention to it," she says. "They focus on working and their family and the problems they might have. And they don’t think that’s important for them because they’re the outside of Mexico."

On a recent Saturday at the Mexican consulate across from MacArthur Park, not a single person had registered to vote by mail. David Pineda, who has lived in the U.S. since 2004 and was at the consulate renewing his passport, says, like everyone else, he was just too busy. "I didn’t register in Mexico because of the time. I have to work, sometimes Monday through Saturday and the consulate, they don’t open on Sundays."

Voters who successfully registered to vote by mail will begin receiving their ballots this month and Mexican nationals living abroad can still vote in person if they can afford to return home. Many at the consulate said they plan to.