News : How to break away from what’s broken 

The Mexican election wants to be your role model

After a delay, the country got its results and its bad news. The ruling party had stuffed their man into office, and by the most suspicious margin. There were reports of fraud and the kind of signature corruption that gets an illegal act named after your locale (like the word “shanghai,” that old custom of drugging and kidnapping sailors to work ships headed for China).

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This election wasn’t the first G.W. Bush-putsch (aka Presidential Deathrace 2000 — honestly, the Current would rather see a brutal driving contest decide the executive post than have the closest race in American history be decided by just 537 votes, and in the state governed by the winner’s brother). That took a month of delaying before the Supreme Court ended the recount and sapped some of our democracy’s strength.

And it’s not the most recent Bush-bamboozlement, which Robert F. Kennedy Jr. picks apart in unloving detail, in his June 1 Rolling Stone magazine epic, “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?”

(The Current’s crib notes on Jr.’s 11,000-word article: “That election got shanghaied!”)

No, the electoral breakdown the Current’s talking about has been called the most unpopular modern election in Mexican history. In 1988, Carlos Salinas was the apparatchik for the ancient PRI (the party that fought dirty and had held the executive title since 1929). After the polls closed, Salinas trailed in a computerized vote count. Then the system crashed. When it came back up, he who was once trailing was now in the lead (thereby possibly giving the world a euphemism for electronic electoral fraud: se cayó el sistema, “the system shut down.”).

By some accounts, Mexican elections are now more credible than ever, because of Salinas. After taking the seat, he had to deal with a hostile, polarized, mistrustful nation (sounds like____, rhymes with “tush”) and, like a man hoping to be the last aboard a fabulous ship, Salinas found a way to pull up the planks behind him, ensuring some elections would be harder to steal (though he himself would float down in history as “un ratón” and a famous embezzler). Salinas allowed electoral reforms, says Peter Ward, UT Austin public-affairs professor and former director of the school’s Mexican Center, and though some were PRI-serving, he laid the groundwork for the rise of opposition parties (eventually undoing PRI-presidential tradition of handpicking successors).

More importantly, he let a new nonpartisan organism oversee elections — the Instituto Federal Electoral. The agency issued in an era of transparancy, federal funding of campaigns, and the welcoming of international observers. IFE also plays referee, making sure candidates end their campaigns the week before the election, and that opinion polls are not published the week before, either.

It’s an institution so credible, says Claudio Lopez-Guerra, a doctoral candidate studying political philosophy at Columbia, that often, banks and airlines won’t accept Mexican driving licenses as official IDs; they want either passports or IFE voting cards. This year, IFE reached out to the Mexican diaspora. In anticipation of this Sunday’s presidential election, and for the first time ever, the agency offered absentee ballots to expatriates, the majority of whom live in America. Although only 40,000 Mexican nationals in the U.S. registered to vote — 453 from San Antonio — Gabriel Rodriguez, a young reporter at San Antonio’s Spanish-language newspaper Rumbo, says not to take that as a vote of no-confidence.

It’s just that many nationals didn’t bring their voter ID cards with them — Rodriguez didn’t — and crossing the border to get it is especially problematic for illegals.

“Fraud in this election is not on the minds of the electorate,” he says. (The Current’s friends say the low absentee vote was because the deadline to register, January, was too early, the process too lengthy, and outreach efforts too limited).

Meanwhile, the man with the most rockin’ surname in American history is telling the U.S. to be on fraud alert. RFK Jr. wrote that in 2004, “nearly half of the 6 million American voters living abroad never received their ballots — or received them too late to vote — after the Pentagon unaccountably shut down a state-of-the-art website used to file overseas registrations.” And the majority of the voting irregularities had a decidedly partisan (read Bush-ian) bent. Even Jeanette Hernandez, who oversaw a polling precinct in SA’s Lowell Middle School in 2004, said voters complained that when they picked John Kerry on the touch screen, it would register a vote for Bush.

“The U.S. election system urgently needs attention,” says UT’s Peter Ward. “The county and state mechanisms vary by state, and, just frankly, the electoral college is anti-democratic and anachronistic. Now the U.S. has more to learn from other electoral systems.”

No one claims that Mexico is without its problems (right now a teachers strike is being crushed by the state), but the nascent democracy holds its elections on a voter-friendly day (Super Sunday!) and there’s no electoral college to throw a monkey wrench into the process. And while Mexico moves away from elections decided by computer crashes, America hesitantly walks toward its Diebold e-voting machines.


More by Keli Dailey

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