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Turning Rights into Ballots: Mexican External Voting from the US

Citizenship
Democracy
Latin America
Migration
Voting
Policy Change
Voting Behaviour
Andrés Besserer Rayas
The City University of New York
Victoria Finn
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden
Andrés Besserer Rayas
The City University of New York
Victoria Finn
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden

Abstract

Inclusive democracies allow emigrants, and sometimes their descendants, to vote. While some countries lag in enacting or implementing voting rights, others grant them but then lag in turning rights into ballots. Participation is essential, as voting remains a pillar of democracy. Mexico has consistently applied external voting in federal presidential elections since 2006, alongside select regions allowing external voting for local elections. The Mexican-born nonresident population is one of the largest worldwide and 97.2% live in the United States (US). Yet 15 years after implementing external voting to a potential pool of 12 million external voters, only about 200,000 vote. We examine turnout data, electoral laws, and academic literature, and conduct interviews within Mexico’s electoral management body (EMB) to address our research question: what explains the stagnation between offering symbolic democratic voice on paper to realizing active external voting in practice? Previous explanations included cumbersome registration and voting procedures, paired with banned campaigning abroad. Non-participation calmed fears of swinging election outcomes, ‘Americanized’ voter viewpoints, and ruptures in Mexico-US politics. But contemporary Mexican democracy allows dual nationality, and the EMB has overhauled regulations, eased registration, and in 2018 offered electronic voting alongside postal voting. Political parties have also managed to engage the diaspora. The literature details Mexicans’ continued transnational ties to Mexico since many follow homeland politics, send remittances, and join hometown associations—yet external voting remains low. We suggest key institutional barriers still limit meaningful participation, in conjunction with irregular legal status in the US, which deters many emigrants from reaching the first step of external voting: registration. By looking beyond the national party system and transnational outreach, this case study highlights a limitation of research focusing only on homeland politics since it sacrifices analysis of legal and social dynamics in the residence country that comprise part of the explanation. Higher turnout would improve democracy for polities with large diasporas. The conundrum of extending voting rights that fail to generate political participation from abroad leaves a large group of citizens on the sidelines of democracy.