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Published: Saturday, January 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Registration of Mexican voters living abroad lags

MEXICO CITY -- Only about 25,000 Mexicans living abroad have applied to vote in Mexico's presidential election this summer, a number that is far below expectations and raises questions about whether cumbersome registration procedures kept in place by the government have discouraged participation.
Authorities estimate that as many as 4.3 million people living outside the country, mostly in the United States, are eligible to vote by mail in the July presidential election. But as the Sunday deadline for absentee voting registration nears, organizers and immigrants themselves are questioning why the largest expatriate population in the world remains one of the quietest on issues affecting their homeland.
"It's clear the government wants our money, but not our input," said Manuel Villa, who works at a heavy machinery equipment shop outside Dallas. "We all want to see a safe, more prosperous Mexico, but it's tough to make our voices known when the government puts up so many obstacles."
In 2011, Mexicans sent an estimated $21 billion in remittances to families back home, up about 9 percent from a year earlier, but their political clout remains virtually nonexistent. As of Jan. 10, 25,382, people had applied to vote. Texas and California were the states with the most applicants.
After advocates pressed for years for absentee voting privileges, Mexico approved electoral reforms in 2005 that allowed citizens living abroad to vote during presidential elections. Overall participation was low in the 2006 election, won by President Felipe Calderon. Of the 56,312 people who registered, only 33,111 voted. Critics blamed the low turnout on requirements that included paying a $10 fee and showing proof of residency in the United States, a rule that prevented many Mexicans -- who, for example, may not have had an electric bill in their name -- from registering. Those requirements have been dropped.
But despite criticism and lobbying on behalf of immigrant advocates, Mexico's Congress failed to implement proposed reforms and instead relied on the Federal Electorate Institute to make administrative changes. The result is a "likely dismal failure," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a leading advocate for the right to vote for the Coalition for the Political Rights of Mexicans Abroad.
"If the government officials or legislators show no effort to make the process easier, more attractive or inclusive, why should immigrants care to participate in elections?" he said, questioning what he called the government's scant publicity about the process. "The weakest link to the Mexican democracy is the existing obstacles that prevent immigrants from participating."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 31.8 million people of Mexican origin live in the United States.
Despite IFE's efforts to make it easier for citizens to vote abroad, Mexican law still requires an IFE credential -- even an expired one -- in order to vote. The catch is that for the many Mexicans who don't have an IFE credential, the only way to get a new one is to return to Mexico. For those who are living outside of Mexico, that is a remote option, and a risky one for those living without legal documents.
"Clearly, IFE wants this to change so that in the future more Mexicans can vote," said Ana Isabel Fuentes Bustillos, an IFE spokeswoman. Fuentes said IFE remains hopeful for a last-minute rush of voter registrations, something that happened six years ago.
Collectively, Mexican emigrants represent about 15 percent of the electorate. Overall, Rodriguez said, Mexican voters lack a culture of political participation in either country, something he attributes to Mexican politicians who would rather not deal with the wrath of a population that voted with their feet, leaving Mexico behind.
Villa, the worker near Dallas, has never broken his ties to his native state of Michoacan. He used to travel home yearly, sometimes even twice. But news of drug violence kept him away for a time, until last December, when he returned to visit his dying father. He spent the holidays with his family but in his grieving found no time to obtain the electoral card needed to register. He returned this week to Texas, his home since 1985, and realized once again that he wouldn't participate in his homeland's political future.
"I continue to send money to my mother back in Michoacan, a place where I still have a home and my own horse," said Villa, who is also a U.S. citizen. "But I don't feel my voice matters."
Peggy Jaramillo, who owns a used-car dealership in Dallas, said she has spent the last few months trying to motivate members of immigrant groups in Texas to register. Jaramillo, 48, said the enthusiasm of the past just isn't there, anymore, largely because the much-promised political change in Mexico has led instead to widespread drug violence. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced that more than 47,000 people have been killed since Calderon took office six years ago and declared war on powerful cartels.
"I don't want to call it apathy, because I don't think that's the sole reason," she said. "I think people are just so disappointed with the political process and the so-called change which has brought violence to Mexico. When I tell people that that's precisely why they should register to vote, they tell me they're sick of what they see in Mexico. Many just don't care anymore, and that's even worse."

HOW TO APPLY
Applications for Mexican citizens to cast their votes abroad can be obtained at embassies and consulates. The applications are also available from a website operated by the Federal Electorate Institute, votoextrangero.mx.
The agency also has a Twitter account, VotoExtranjero. Applications must be postmarked by Sunday. Early voting begins in April. Mail-in votes need to be received in Mexico City by June 30. Postage expenses will be covered by the Mexican government.

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