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Mexico's Absentee Voters Struggle to Cast Ballots

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yesterday's election marked the first time that Mexicans living abroad were able to vote absentee.

Four million Mexicans living in the U.S. could have mailed in ballots, although fewer than 40,000 actually did. Dismal results are being blamed on a cumbersome registration process and poor advertising, all of which did not stop some Mexican expatriates from going home to vote in person.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Jorge Larrias(ph) and his wife, Erlinda(ph), left their home in Pomona, California, around midnight Saturday, got a hotel room near downtown L.A., slept a few hours and were in line by 5:00 a.m. yesterday buying bus tickets to Tijuana, Mexico. Larrias, a naturalized U.S. citizen, says he's glad to make such an effort because he loves democracy.

Mr. JORGE LARRIAS (Naturalized U.S. Citizen): Every time there is an election, I go and vote.

KAHN: Larrias owns a small meat market and says he has never missed voting in the U.S., or in his home country either. He wants things to change in Mexico, and will vote for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the leftist PRD Party.

The prospect of Lopez Obrador winning convinced Martha Martinez(ph) of Los Angeles to make the three hour trip to Tijuana.

Ms. MARTHA MARTINEZ (Los Angeles): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: She says she thinks Lopez Obrador is as strident a leftist as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. She's making the trip to vote for Felipe Calderon, the right of center PAN Party's candidate.

But Ben Hamin Gonzalez(ph), also from L.A., says he's just glad to vote.

Mr. BEN HAMIN GONZALEZ (Los Angeles): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says before, when the PRI Party ruled Mexico, he didn't think his vote would count. But since Vicente Fox broke the PRI's hold on the country, he's regained faith and wants Fox's PAN Party to stay in power.

Mexican expats have fought for years for a chance to vote absentee. Unfortunately, the complicated and restrictive registration process left millions of eligible voters out in the cold. Many missed the deadline. Others just didn't receive their ballots.

Mr. GUSTAVO SANTIAGO MARQUEZ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Gustavo Santiago Marquez says he never got his ballot, despite leading several registration drives to sign up L.A.-based Mexican voters.

Mr. MARQUEZ: (Through translator) I was the one who participated in all these registration drives. I was the one telling everyone, it's easy. Sign up and vote. And now, I don't get to vote. It's not fair.

KAHN: Many on the L.A. to Tijuana bus said they also never received their ballots. Others just preferred to vote in person.

Stepping off the bus at Tijuana's airport three hours after leaving L.A., Jorge Larrias was stunned by the long line already snaking around the main terminal building. The special polling place was one of 86 sites set up in Mexican border towns.

Some line, huh?

Mr. LARRIAS: Yeah. I don't know how long, how many hours I'm going to wait for here...

KAHN: It's past 9:00 a.m. already. The early morning sun is blazing, and the polling place still hasn't opened. Hot and frustrated voters, many who drove through the night lining up before dawn, began hurling insults and booing electoral officials.

(Soundbite of crowd)

KAHN: Computer glitches and poor planning plagued the polling place throughout the day. It took more than six hours for Larrias to make it to the front of the line. With sweat trickling down his brow, now bright red from the sun, Larrias said he's not upset about the wait.

Mr. LARRIAS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says he just marked his ballot a bit harder, more convinced than ever that the situation in Mexico has to change.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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