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Getting the vote out in an election that spans a border

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Times Staff Writer

At churches, soccer fields and the supermarkets where more tortillas than bread are sold, Mexican immigrants are learning about their chance to vote in elections back home.

Michoacan immigrant groups throughout the U.S. are telling fellow natives of that central Mexican state that they can cast absentee ballots for governor in November.

Michoacan is the first Mexican state to give migrants in the United States the means to vote. A law approved Feb. 10 set up an absentee voting procedure that other Mexican states are expected to follow soon.

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A law that allowed Mexicans to vote in federal elections last year attracted fewer than 1% of the estimated migrants in the United States. But Michoacanos say the state absentee ballot system is easier than the federal one and will attract a greater proportion of voters.

Michoacanos are a politically active group of immigrants who have strong organizations in places such as Chicago and even Rhode Island. Their leaders pushed for the right to vote in Mexican elections and are spreading information about the new legislation.

At the same time, some migrants from the state returned to Mexico to get the national voter identification card needed to cast ballots in all elections, which many didn’t have in time for the federal election.

“Michoacanos are interested in the future of the state, and we want to make it clear to them that they do have a voice,” said Roberto Laurean, president of the Michoacan Federation of Orange County, who was handing out information to shoppers Thursday at Northgate Market in Santa Ana.

Michoacanos can send in absentee ballot applications until July 2.

Laurean and his supporters will visit places Mexican immigrants frequent in Santa Ana, a city where an estimated 1 of every 3 Mexican immigrants comes from Michoacan, about 60,000 people.

Laurean approached one Michoacan native, Ramon Ruz, who said he would distribute information at a wedding in Pico Rivera that is expected to attract more than 500 natives of Aguililla, Michoacan, most of whom are coming from Redwood City. Nearly half of Aguililla’s 25,000 people moved to the Northern California city.

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Michoacanos in the United States are a powerful economic force back home. They sent an estimated $2.8 million to relatives in 2006 and spent $8 million more for public works projects in the state.

“Migrants bring in a significant amount of money into the state, and it’s logical that they have a voice,” said Jesus Martinez Saldana, who quit his job as a Cal State Fresno professor to become Michoacan’s first state legislator representing migrants.

Mexican election officials estimate that 160,000 Michoacanos living in the United States are eligible to vote, and 53% of them live in California. More than 3 million people are registered to vote in Michoacan, but fewer than 50% do.

Michoacan approved absentee voting even though Mexico’s first stab at the process produced dismal results. Only 33,130 migrants in the United States voted in Mexico’s federal elections in July.

The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington think tank, attributed the poor turnout to strict requirements, insufficient information about registration procedures and a general lack of interest.

Francisco Moreno, president of the California Federation of Michoacanos in Los Angeles, said he expected more success in the state election.

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“Michoacanos have strong organizations, and we’ve been fighting for this for so many years. The reaction to our efforts in the governor’s election is likely to be strong,” Moreno said.

Moreno is setting up a telephone call center to reach Michoacan natives and expects to set up booths in restaurants in cities with large Michoacano populations, such as Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and Hawaiian Gardens.

In many of these cities, Michoacanos have formed clubs that send money for hometown civic projects.

“For us, it’s very positive that leaders of clubs have followed this legislation and they’re sharing that information north of the border,” said Silvano Aureoles Conejo, a Mexican federal senator representing Michoacan who has relatives living in Santa Ana. “It means more people are likely to vote.”

Santa Ana resident Agustin Sanchez Padilla, 52, didn’t vote in the Mexican presidential election because he didn’t have an electoral card, but he applied for one on a trip to Mexico at Christmas and plans to vote for Michoacan governor.

“What happens in Michoacan affects me and my family. This country helped me eat, but my roots are still there in Mexico,” said Sanchez Padilla, who came to the United States 34 years ago.

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Processing the migrant absentee vote will cost Michoacan $1.6 million, about 10% of the total state election cost. While allowing migrants to vote in the presidential election was controversial, there was greater support for it in Michoacan, Saldana said.

Legislators there passed a law with fewer restrictions on absentee voters, but migrants won’t be able to vote for local government or state assembly candidates, Martinez Saldana said, only for governor.

Federal applications for absentee ballots require visiting a consulate, sending the documents by registered mail to Mexico and providing several documents proving that they once lived in Mexico.

Michoacan applications can be obtained through the Internet, consulates or migrants groups and can be sent through ordinary mail. And only a Mexican voter identification card is needed as proof of being from Michoacan.

Bernardo Amezcua, 45, owner of A&A; Remodeling of Santa Ana, has lived in the U.S. for 35 years. He belongs to a group that raised $60,000 to help pay for a well for his native town of Francisco Sarabia.

“We want to vote because we have a stake in our homeland,” he said.

jennifer.delson@latimes.com

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