I. Overview

Strict requirements, insufficient information about registration procedures and lack of public interest hobbled Mexico’s first effort to conduct absentee voting among its more than ten million adult citizens living in the United States, according to a Pew Hispanic Center survey. About one-half of one percent of Mexicans in the U.S. sought absentee ballots for the presidential election in July during a registration period which ended last month.

The survey found that more than half (55%) of Mexicans in the U.S. were not aware that a presidential election is taking place this year and that few were familiar with the regulations and procedures adopted by the Mexican government last June when it authorized absentee voting for Mexicans abroad. About a third knew that the deadline for seeking an absentee ballot had just passed at the time of the survey. Only one of every ten eligible voters could correctly answer a set of factual questions about the procedures for getting a ballot.

The Mexican Federal Elections Institute, known by its initials in Spanish, IFE, recently announced that it received 56,749 ballot applications from abroad prior to the January 15 deadline, with 89% coming from the United States. As many as a fifth of those applications, however, may be rejected because they were submitted improperly. With the processing of the applications still being completed, it appears that fewer than 40,000 Mexicans in the U.S. may be able to cast absentee ballots in the July 2006 presidential election.

Out of a total adult population of some 10 million Mexicans living in the U.S., the survey showed that about three million would have been eligible to vote under the rules established by the Mexican congress—if they had applied for ballots. According to the IFE’s count of ballot applications, about one-half one percent of all the adult Mexicans in the U.S. and fewer than two percent of the eligible voters registered for absentee ballots.

By contrast, during 2004 election in the Dominican Republic, which has a long tradition of expatriate involvement in home country politics, a population of some 670,000 adults living in the U.S. cast 26,437 ballots for a turnout of 4 percent.

Why didn’t more Mexicans sign up? Eligible voters, given a choice of several reasons, blamed the requirements for absentee voting as well as a lack of information on the process for seeking a ballot. But while Mexico remains a primary interest to expatriates—they send money home, travel back and call relatives frequently—many said a lack of knowledge about the politics of their home country was also a factor that discouraged them from participating.

Although they maintain close ties to families left behind, Mexicans in the U.S. generally express a low opinion of Mexican political institutions. In terms of their partisan preferences, the survey of Mexicans in the U.S. showed somewhat different leanings than in public opinion polling in Mexico, with greater support for the centrist National Action Party (PAN) and less support for the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.

The three million eligible voters in the U.S. had the potential to exercise a decisive voice in an election often described as among the most important in Mexican history. This is the first presidential election since in the Institutional Revolutionary Party lost power in 2000 after a seven-decade reign, and three major candidates with substantially different positions on different issues are running in a campaign that is perhaps the most closely contested in the nation’s history.

In Mexico, absentee voting has become an important test of whether the government and the political parties are willing and able to grant a political voice to a population that sent home some $20 billion in remittances last year. For Mexicans in the U.S. it has become a measure of their intentions to exercise political influence in Mexico. And, in the United States, the prospect of so many people potentially voting in another country’s election has been portrayed as an indication of how Mexicans might balance political involvement in their native land with their lives in the United States.

The survey findings are based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 987 Mexican-born adults living in the United States. Fieldwork was conducted by International Communications Research of Media, PA and lasted from January 16, 2006—the day after the deadline had passed for absentee ballot registration by Mexicans living abroad—until completed February 6. Virtually all (96%) of the interviews were conducted in Spanish. The survey results have a margin of error of 4.37%. (See Appendix on Methodology for further details).

About one of every eight adults born in Mexico now lives in the United States, and they are by far the largest foreign population living in this country. As such, the new Mexican absentee voting program marks the largest experiment ever undertaken of expatriates voting in one western democracy while living in another. At a time when migration flows are increasingly worldwide, it has also been a test of how a diaspora and a home country government manage a civic relationship with each other. The survey results indicate that each side failed to engage the other.

The major findings of the survey include:

  • The eligibility requirements adopted by the Mexican government excluded nearly seven million people—about two-thirds of the potential electorate—from participation. The law enacted by the Mexican congress last June authorizing the first absentee ballot by Mexicans living abroad limited voting to persons who hold a valid voter registration credential issued in Mexico and made no provision for voter registration outside the country.
  • The survey found that 31% of Mexicans in the U.S. have valid Mexican voting credentials with them, a potential electorate of three million persons. That group is younger, more recently arrived in the United States and more likely to send remittances to Mexico than is the population of Mexican adults in the U.S. as a whole.
  • Asked in what year the next Mexican presidential election would take place, 45% of all Mexicans in the US and 53% of eligible voters answered correctly, 2006.
  • Slightly fewer than a fifth (19%) of all Mexicans in the U.S. and a quarter of eligible voters (24%) knew both the correct month and year of the election, July 2006.
  • More than three-quarters (78%) said they were aware that Mexicans living in the U.S. will be able to vote in the next Mexican presidential election.
  • Somewhat more than a third of all Mexicans in the U.S. (36%) and of eligible voters (35%) said they were aware that the deadline for seeking an absentee ballot had passed. Fewer than one fifth of either group could correctly identify the deadline for registration.
  • About a quarter of Mexicans in the US (25%) and about the same share of eligible voters (27%) said they knew “something” about the procedures for applying for an absentee ballot.
  • Asked a series of factual questions about those procedures, 7% of all Mexicans in the U.S. and 12% of the eligible voters correctly stated the deadline for application had passed, that a valid electoral credential was needed, that the application could be dispatched by mail and that it had to be sent by registered mail.
  • Responding to a variety of statements about reasons why Mexicans in the U.S. did not register for the vote abroad, two thirds (67%) of all Mexicans here agreed that lack of the necessary documents such as the voting credential was a reason, while almost as many (61%) said they thought they knew something but were not sufficiently informed about Mexican politics to vote.
  • About half said that they did not receive enough information to know how to register for the absentee vote (55%) or that the procedures were too difficult and complicated (46%).
  • In response to the statement “I am making my life in the United States and the elections in Mexico are not important to me,” 28% of Mexicans in the U.S. agreed that was a reason people did not apply for the absentee voting, but 68% disagreed.
  • Few Mexicans in the U.S. (13%) said they had a good opinion of the way Mexican political institutions function while 32% said they had a bad opinion. The rest said they had a fair opinion.
  • In response to questions about party preferences and the upcoming presidential race, Mexicans in the U.S. and especially eligible voters showed leanings in favor of the PAN. More than a third of eligible voters (36%) said they felt closest to the PAN compared to 14% each for both the PRD and the PRI.