The Migrant Voice Mexicans in the US face too many obstacles to voting in their homeland’s 2018 elections, but they’re rising to the challenge

Salinas resident Enrique Méndez Flores shows a copy of the ballot he used to vote in Mexico’s presidential election. | Víctor Almazán

By Víctor Almazán

Translation: Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Mexican migrants who live in the United States will be the first to vote in the upcoming Mexican elections. Our vote will not tip the balance, since our numbers are small, but it could mark the beginning of a trend and a greater push for electoral reforms.

The 2018 presidential elections have generated great expectations due to the possibility that the bipartisanship that keeps the country mired in extreme poverty, corruption and violence could lose on July 1.

It’s estimated that about 88 million people can vote in Mexican elections. But those of us who live abroad are practically denied that right granted by our constitution. This puts us in a situation that in the United States is called “taxation without representation” — according to Mexico’s Central Bank, Mexicans abroad sent $28 billion home to their country of origin in 2017, making migrants the third-largest source of income for the country after agricultural exports and the automotive industry.

Eleazar Sosa, a Greenfield resident, left his town of Tarejero, Michoacán, when he was 18 years old. He moved to California, but every year he still fundraises with his compatriots in the United States to organize a jaripeo — a local rodeo — in Tarejero. He says that visiting his hometown and spending money there stimulates the local economy. His wife Alba Sosa adds that with migrant support, “the town’s plaza was built, as well as the basketball court” — all from donations.

“But we’ve neglected the vote,” she says.

After many years of demanding the right to vote abroad, Mexicans were first allowed to vote by mail in 2006, and again in 2012. In 2006, the number of Mexicans who voted from the U.S. was 28,346, followed by roughly 29,000 in 2012. For the current election, Mexico’s National Electoral Institute estimates that the number of applications to vote abroad has tripled: around 126,000 Mexican nationals might vote this year from the United States.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 11 million Mexicans live in the U.S., which means the total number of Mexicans voting abroad would only be 1 percent of us. A minuscule amount.

So why don’t Mexicans abroad vote?

There are a variety of reasons: some have become disillusioned with elections. In a phone conversation, San José resident José Sandoval told me, “The elections are a circus. The decisions are being made by corporations, not by citizens.” Sandoval, a community activists who defends migrant rights in the Bay Area, says he opposes excessive government spending on the electoral process. “We also pay for the elections, we send money to Mexico. That’s money that should be spent for other needs,” he said.

Alba Sosa says not voting is a way of respecting her compatriots. “We’re not there, we’re not living the problems they’re having. But I respect those who vote. We love Mexico.”

Eleazar says there’s also very little information available about the Mexican elections. “I know about López Obrador, about Ms. Zavala, who quit,” he says, referring to the left-leaning candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, who’s leading in the polls, and Margarita Zavala, the first independent candidate to run for the presidency and who ended her campaign mid-May.

“Before, I knew about Vicente Fox and his V, and I would have liked to vote for Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas — he gave me my university diploma,” he says. (Former presidential candidate Cárdenas was widely believed to have lost the 1988 election through fraud.)

Randy Sosa, the couple’s son, graduated in May from the U.S. Naval Academy. “We’ve concentrated on our children’s education,” they say proudly, further explaining their lack of involvement in Mexican politics.

But the real problem is that voting abroad is not easy. The first prerequisite is to have an election card, which is issued by the National Electoral Institute.

Taking advantage of a recent trip to Mexico City, I was able to get my voter I.D. in a local elections office. I could have requested it at a Mexican consulate in the U.S., but I chose to avoid the bad service and unkind treatment of government officials.

Either way, the process is lengthy and complicated: several documents are required that citizens rarely carry with them when they live in the U.S., such as birth certificates, I.D. cards and proof of address.

Then, after applying for your voter I.D. at the consulate, you have to “activate it” (just like you’d do with a credit card) and apply to be signed up in the voter rolls. The application is reviewed by officials from the Electoral Institute, and if it’s approved, they’ll finally send the ballots to the voter’s residence.

The complicated nature of this whole process has discouraged many citizens from doing it.

Salinas resident Enrique Méndez Flores had planned to go to his native Mexicali to vote. “I can drive, I have time. That was my intention,” he says. But an acquaintance asked for his help signing up for the voter rolls online, so he decided to try it too, to learn about the process.

“In the application, I was asked for something my voter I.D. didn’t have: the ‘folio number,’” he says. He called several phone numbers listed on the electoral institute’s website. Nobody answered. Two weeks later, he received an answer from an email he’d sent to an institute employee. He got the mysterious folio number just two days before the deadline to sign up to get a ballot. “Where did they get it from?” he wondered. He never found out.

Méndez received his voting packet on May 18 and sent it back a few days later. He’s a bit skeptical about the whole process, given rumors on migrant social media networks that claim the address Mexicans are instructed to send their ballots to actually belongs to a snack company.

“I have no trust in the electoral institutions, and that’s bad,” he says.

Another problem is that the vast majority of migrants simply don’t know they’re able to vote abroad. The Electoral Institute only held three events to promote voting in the United States: in Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. According to the institute’s website, voting abroad was promoted through social media and the Mexican consulates. Overall, the effort was minimal, and the March 31 deadline to request a ballot has long passed.

Part of the Chicago mural “Mexico is where you are” by Alexander Tadlock, used by Mexico's elections department to promote voting in Mexico from the U.S.

Migrants just don’t matter to the candidates

Not only are migrants absent from the Mexican government’s agenda, they’re not part of the political platforms of presidential candidates. They’ve barely been mentioned. It wasn’t until the second presidential debate, in Tijuana, Baja California, on May 20, that candidates were forced to address the topic and state their positions.

López Obrador, candidate for the coalition “Together We’ll Make History,” proposed that Mexican consulates become migrant defense centers and said he’d advocate for migrant rights before the United Nations. A few days before the debate, Ricardo Anaya, candidate for the coalition “Forward for Mexico,” was accused by the NGO Angels Without Borders of stealing its migration proposal. José Antonio Meade, candidate from “Everyone for Mexico,” proposed to continue with what the Mexican government is currently doing, which isn’t much.

What’s next

I have my ballots. I’m going to vote for two women — for president and the governor of Mexico City. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in elections per se. Voting works in established democracies, but in developing democracies like Mexico, voting is fairly useless unless it’s accompanied by a broad social movement.

The 2018 elections in Mexico could foment the needed social movement to change the country and see that movement echoed in the Mexican population living in the United States. But to increase the number of Mexicans taking part in elections, the right to vote needs to be repaired. It needs to be much easier. That’s not going to be the job of the winning candidate, but of the Mexican citizens who live abroad. “We’re going to have to do something about it,” Méndez says.

Mexicans’ right to vote has been hard-earned. It’s cost many lives and has been a grass-roots struggle for a very long time. Now that we have it, it’s a right that must be preserved.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.


Víctor Almazán

About Víctor Almazán

Víctor Almazán nació en la Ciudad de México, ha colaborado en periódico de México y California, entre ellos The Salinas Californian, El Sol y la célebre El Andar Magazine. Vive en Salinas y le gustan la películas de vampiros. | Víctor Almazán was born in Mexico City and has contributed to publications in Mexico and California, including The Salinas Californian, El Sol and the renowned El Andar Magazine. He lives in Salinas and likes vampire movies.