Guest Commentary

A well-cooked slab: Mexico’s 2018 elections and the strengths of its electoral system

Alfonso Navarro-Bernachi, consul general of Mexico in Kansas City.
Alfonso Navarro-Bernachi, consul general of Mexico in Kansas City.

March 30 marked the start of the political campaigns for the 2018 general elections in Mexico. In barbecue terms, July 1 will be the full slab: Mexicans at home and abroad will participate in the largest general election in the country’s history, resulting in a new presidency and a complete renewal of both chambers of the Mexican Congress.

Just like the slow-smoking process, the election entails a complex organizational challenge, perhaps the biggest the National Electoral Institute (INE in Spanish) has faced as the independent body in charge of handling Mexican elections. After 25 years of experience, and with a solid legal framework — the result of the evolution of a system borne out of distrust — Mexican electoral authorities are ready for it, with strong structures and rules designed to provide certainty for all players involved.

For the sake of perspective, here are some figures: 3,406 public office positions will be elected this year at the national, local and municipal levels. This number represents an increase of 60.6 percent over the 2,127 positions decided during the last general election in 2012. The electorate itself also reflects the demographic changes of the last six years, with a voters’ census (“lista nominal”) of around 88 million voters registered, about 40 million of whom (roughly half) are under 39 years old.

The chain of trust in the Mexican electoral system starts with the Electoral Registry or Padrón Electoral: 98.5 percent of all Mexicans of age 18 and older have been registered, photographed and fingerprinted — 65 percent of citizens counted in the current census. It is expected that by 2020, the registry will include all fingerprints, making the Padrón Electoral the most reliable identity database in Mexico. Moreover, registered citizens obtain their voter IDs at no cost, enabling them to vote in any local or national election.

Mexicans living abroad, including those in Kansas City, can also participate in this election. After expressing the desire to vote from their country of residence and registering in the Voter’s Registry of Mexicans Living Abroad, voters will receive packages with the ballots for president and members of the Senate, as well as governors and certain other offices in nine states. They must return these ballots by mail before Election Day. Although Mexican consulates and embassies around the world will not operate as ballot stations, they will contribute to the process as facilitators by taking biometrics of Mexicans willing to register and obtain their voter IDs from abroad.

The molasses in the Mexican election sauce is the role played by citizens. Roughly 1.4 million of them — regardless of their origin, level of education or professional background — are selected by a random drawing from the voters’ census. These people are put in charge of setting ballot stations and counting the votes. This means anyone’s neighbor, coworker or family member might be selected, increasing everyone’s confidence in the process.

The chain of trust also includes the participation of the Mexican armed forces, who are in charge of safeguarding ballots before Election Day. Additionally, Mexico has developed other mechanisms to reinforce reliability, such as the indelible ink used to mark voters’ thumbs and special permanent markers for the ballots. Through the experience that it has acquired over the years, Mexico’s INE has shared best practices and contributed to the design of democratic systems in some African and Caribbean countries.

The 2018 general election will undoubtedly be a new test for Mexican institutions. The INE and the High Court on Elections of the Mexican Judiciary branch are ready. They will oversee this process to provide certainty and, ultimately, to facilitate the transition of political power in a peaceful manner.

Alfonso Navarro-Bernachi is consul general of Mexico in Kansas City.