Mexican chapters of Democrats Abroad are mobilizing their forces for the 2012 U.S. elections. With hundreds of thousands of U.S. expatriates residing in Mexico, absentee votes from south of the border could play a significant role in this year's political contests, especially in close races.
In Puerto Vallarta, dozens of expatriates and visitors kicked off the political season by turning out to a Democrats Abroad event last month. The mainly older crowd attended a social hour, saw an educational film, and viewed President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address.
The activities of U.S. political parties in the exterior are limited by Federal Election Commission rules, a leader of the Costa Banderas chapter of Democrats Abroad Mexico told Frontera NorteSur.
"We can't come out and advertise for candidates per se," Larry Pihl, the group's treasurer said. "We are trying to educate Americans - Republicans, Democrats or independents - to vote."
Pihl said expatriates have to re-register to vote every year, a process which can now be accomplished online. In order to vote, expatriates can have ballots mailed from their particular state governments and then return them via the closest U.S. Consulate. They can also request a federal absentee ballot.
For efficiency purposes, many expatriates choose to have ballots sent to a border drop-off like Laredo, Texas, and then have the election materials personally transported, Pihl said. A goal of the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act pertaining to the rights of foreign-deployed military personnel and expatriates is to eventually implement a fully electronic voting system, he added.
Pihl declined to give the numerical strength of the Democrats' Costa Banderas chapter, but said "we've probably tripled our size because of the 2008 election," when the group was just getting off the ground. "Since then, the chapter has thrived." The Costa Banderas chapter represents members residing in Puerto Vallarta proper as well as the communities strung along Banderas Bay and to the immediate north in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. According to Pihl, who also serves as a member-at-large of the national organization in Mexico, other Democrats Abroad chapters are found in Mazatlan, Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico City, and Merida.
The year promises to be a busy one for Pihl and fellow members of Democrats Abroad Mexico. Although President Obama faces no challenge within this own party, Democrats Abroad is still required to have a primary, which is set for March. A presentation by former Texas agriculture commissioner and political commentator Jim Hightower is scheduled for San Miguel de Allende during the same month. In May, the Costa Bandera Democrats and Puerto Vallarta will host the worldwide gathering of Democrats Abroad, an event which is expected to draw activists from about 50 countries, according to Pihl.
The Democratic primary will be open to all interested and eligible expatriates, regardless of party affiliation. "We're not excluding anyone," he stressed.
One man who stumbled across the recent Puerto Vallarta event said he was surprised by the effort to mobilize expatriate votes. Roger Jauire, who identified himself as a long-time trade union activist and former official from Minnesota, said it would be better for Americans to vote at home.
"I don't think there's anything we can do from here to change policy in the U.S. Hopefully, these people can go back and change things," Jauire said. Like Pihl, Jauire contended that the future direction of the country was on the line in 2012. "The main issue is survival," he asserted. "The way we're going, we're not going to survive. Too much corporate greed... too much monetary control."
But according to Pihl, expatriate voters who are still committed to the land of their birth have made a difference in previous elections - and can do so again in 2012. "We can pinpoint five or six Democratic races that were won by the expatriate vote," Pihl said. "(U.S. Senator) Al Franken is an example."
Within the Democratic organization, Democrats Abroad is treated like a 51st state, proposes policies on immigration, gun control and other matters for inclusion in the national political platform, and leads a delegation to the party's national convention, he added. As in previous years, changing Medicare rules so expatriates can use a program they supported all their lives to pay for healthcare costs in their current country of residence remains an issue for Democrats Abroad in Mexico and elsewhere. Pihl, however, conceded that Capitol Hill political realities don't make a Medicare reform favorable to expatriates likely in the short-term. "The two scariest words in the opposition, anyway, are Mexico and Medicare," he added.
Despite a lot of "unfounded" fear generated by media coverage of Mexican violence, Pihl insisted that Mexico is a "pretty good place" to live for people on Social Security and others who find significantly lower healthcare and housing costs than north of the border.
"I go to a dentist and get a teeth cleaning for $35, and that's from a dentist not a technician," Pihl said. A semiretired electrical engineer with an additional background in sales, Pihl said Mexico could mean a life-changing alternative for people like two American women in their 60s he knows. After losing their "nest eggs" in the financial crash of 2008, the two women were told by an adviser that they would have to return to work even at their advanced ages. Instead, the women shucked their U.S. homes and moved to Mexico, he said.
Unlike 2008, when leaflets convoking Republicans to organize were visible in Puerto Vallarta, no sign of the expatriate GOP has surfaced so far in the Mexican city. The Republicans Abroad website lists contacts for the group in the Lake Chapala area near Guadalajara.
With the vast majority of U.S. expatriates in Mexico well beyond the legal voting age, the group is potentially a key swing vote that is just beginning to flex its political muscles.
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
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