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Mexico's absentee-voter effort faulted

Millions targeted, but only a fraction abroad registered

MEXICO CITY -- Fewer than 57,000 Mexican migrants have requested absentee ballots for the presidential election, officials said yesterday -- a showing many say reflects serious flaws in the effort to include millions living abroad in the vote.

Migrants have argued that they received little information about the program. They also contended that a requirement forcing them to register for a voting card in Mexico negated the benefit of being able to cast a vote from outside the country.

Many of the estimated 4 million registered Mexican voters living abroad, mainly in the United States, are undocumented and don't want to return to Mexico. Getting back into the United States can mean a dangerous crossing and having to pay a smuggler up to $2,000.

Lawmakers have said they may make changes to the law. But those changes won't come in time for the July 2 vote to replace President Vicente Fox, who ended 71 years of one-party rule with his surprise victory in 2000. Mexican law prohibits Fox from seeking reelection.

Wednesday was the deadline for officials to determine the final number of absentee ballot requests. In a statement, the Federal Electoral Institute said yesterday that officials had received 56,749 valid forms. The absentee ballots themselves will be sent out between April 15 and May 20.

With Mexico spending about $26 million on the absentee-voting effort, each vote cast by a migrant abroad will cost the country's electoral agency $458 -- about 25 times as much as each ballot cast in Mexico.

''It is unacceptable for a country with 20 million poor people to spend this kind of money," said Miguel Angel Jimenez, the leader of Mexico's Nueva Alianza party. ''This is the most expensive voting process in the world."

Migrant activists view that as unfair criticism, in part because Mexicans sent $20 billion last year to relatives living in Mexico.

For them, the congressional vote to approve absentee ballots in June 2005 was a historic milestone that can't be measured in terms of cost.

''When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, nobody stopped to count how much each step cost. Nobody complained about what little steps he was taking," said Raul Ross, a Chicago migrants rights activist.

Many say the absentee registration effort was too bureaucratic and restrictive, leaving migrants feeling as if the government that officially praises them as heroes doesn't really know them.

Mexican officials ''aren't familiar with the difficulties we live with up north," said Marcia Soto, president of the Chicago-based Confederation of Mexican Federations, who flew to Mexico City in January to hand deliver 1,500 ballot applications.

As much as anything, it's a cultural clash. Migrant communities are held together by mutual aid and handshakes with fellow countrymen.

Mexico's electoral system, on the other hand, ''was constructed on the basis of mistrust" following decades of voter fraud, said Representative Juan Garcia Ochoa of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Mexican electoral officials were initially loath to distribute voter registration forms through migrant clubs, fearing that local branches of political parties would give them only to supporters.

But when Mexican government efforts at spreading word of the new program faltered, migrant groups like Chicago's Casa Michoacan did things immigrant style; they held an open house.

Volunteers helped countrymen fill out the registration forms, and activists offered to bear the cost of getting the forms back to Mexico -- significant for many given the $8 cost of sending them by registered mail, as required by the law.

The result: The migrant club reported collecting hundreds of applications in three days, almost as many as the official effort had gotten from the city in months.

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