- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A fraction of the eligible voters registered for their first chance to vote by absentee ballot in Mexico’s presidential election, authorities said yesterday.

Voting advocates said the low registration numbers demonstrated a need for fundamental changes to the program, but election officials called it a first step toward greater democracy.

“If this very same information had been out there for nine months, the turnout would have been different,” said Pilar Alvarez of the Federal Electoral Institute, the independent government agency that oversees elections in Mexico.

The expatriate voting law was passed in the summer by Mexico’s Congress and allows citizens abroad to vote in the July 2 presidential election. Citizens were given until Sunday to apply for an absentee ballot.

But of an estimated 4 million eligible voters worldwide, the Federal Electoral Institute said, about 18,600 participated.

Among the biggest problems, critics said, was the required voter ID cards that were issued only in Mexico.

“I feel like I am tied up, that I cannot speak up for my country to say that I am here, I have a voice,” said Armando Cid, 38, of Houston, who didn’t have an ID card.

Gabriela Gambino, 23, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., but is originally from Michoacan, Mexico, said most illegal aliens would be leery of making the trip to Mexico to obtain cards because of travel costs and fear that they would not be able to return to the United States.

“I think they want to vote, but a lot of them can’t go,” she said. “If they are already here, they don’t want to risk going back.”

The Mexican Embassy and consulates in the United States remained open yesterday to distribute registration forms.

The consulate in San Antonio drew a handful of people, including the Rev. Frank Garcia of Amistad Cristiana church, a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States. He couldn’t register for lack of a voter ID card but said he passed out forms to congregation members who have cards.

Volunteers across the United States had organized voting drives in malls, flea markets, churches, banks and homes.

A group of Houston business owners organized weeks of voter drives that they said netted more than 1,400 registrations in Texas.

However, about 60 percent of the people who showed interest had to be turned away because they didn’t have voter ID cards, said Jose Luis Rodriguez, who led the Houston group. “There are people in Mexico who say we are not interested,” he said. “That was one of the key factors for me to push for this right.”

Among the few to complete the registration process was Julio Cesar Aragon, 42, an immigrants-rights advocate who lives in Providence, R.I.

“This is my first time I’m going to vote in my life. I can’t explain to you how happy I feel and how desperate I’ve been to try to make things change,” said Mr. Aragon, who has dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship. “I don’t care for what party I vote. The thing is I get to vote.”

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