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Who Cares Where They Vote?

Wayne A. Cornelius is the Gildred professor of U.S.-Mexican relations and the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

The near-unanimous vote last week by the Mexican Congress to allow immigrants in the United States to vote in presidential elections is a major step toward consolidating Mexico’s democracy -- and Americans should celebrate it. Through the power of absentee ballots, Mexicans who live here may be able to change the policies that drove many of them to seek work in the U.S., and that would have long-term consequences for migrant flows.

The population of Mexico-born people in the U.S. has been growing by half a million a year since 2000. These immigrants sent nearly $17 billion back to Mexico last year alone, and they increasingly demand a voice in their home country’s politics.

But the reform could have been more inclusive. Of the Mexicans living abroad, only registered voters who request mail ballots will be able to vote. There isn’t enough time before next year’s presidential election to set up a fraud-proof system that would allow voting in person at booths in Mexican consulates in the U.S. or via the Internet. Those voting options would boost turnout considerably. Nor is there time to register all the estimated 6 million Mexican expatriates who don’t have a voting card issued by the Federal Electoral Institute. They will have to return to Mexico to register and vote.

So don’t expect a tidal wave of expatriate votes to overwhelm Mexico in 2006, partly because Mexicans have little confidence in their postal system but also because only a minority of Mexican citizens in the U.S. have enough interest in home-country politics to cast a ballot. Those most likely to participate are recent undocumented immigrants who retain strong ties to Mexico but can’t go home to vote without risking their lives and paying a great deal of money to smugglers to get back into the U.S.

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Mexican electoral authorities predict about 400,000 absentee ballots -- 10% of those eligible. If turnout is significantly higher, and the number of expatriate votes exceeds the winning candidate’s margin of victory, the losing parties can challenge the outcome in court on grounds that the new law violates the constitutional guarantee of a secret ballot. There is really no way to guarantee the secrecy of a mailed ballot. But the parties that brought such a challenge would pay a high political cost in the long run.

Congress approved the change because no political party -- especially the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI -- wanted to be blamed for failing to enfranchise the 14% of the Mexican electorate that lives abroad. Fear of voter retribution outweighed any concern that one party or another would benefit disproportionately from expatriate balloting.

The challenge will be to fine-tune and expand next year’s limited experiment in absentee voting. Many issues remain to be addressed -- registering those who lack credentials, lifting legal restrictions on political campaigning abroad, paying for a costlier system of in-person voting.

But Mexican political leaders should be able to resolve these problems. And U.S. politicians should resist the temptation to use home-country voting by Mexicans as fodder in the immigration wars. It’s not evidence of divided loyalties, but a simple recognition that U.S.-based migrants are major stakeholders in how Mexico is governed. And their influence can only benefit the cause of reducing unauthorized emigration.

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