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The Reforms In Mexico's Electoral System: What Can The U.S. Learn From It?

MEXICO CITY — Joe Biden has just been ratified by the Congress as the new president of the country after what seemed a long and atypical electoral process. Mexico also has its own history of elections being confronted. 

The U.S. Congress validated the election of President-elect Joe Biden, despite the ungrounded claims brought by President Donald Trump. As those claims turned deadly in the U.S. state Capitol this week, many Trump supporters continued to insist the election was fraudulent. In Mexico, the electoral system has also faced challenges, and it’s continuously redesigned to improve, from creating mathematical models to controlling the party’s money. 

During the 1988 Mexican presidential elections, the electronic counting system of the then-state-controlled Electoral College collapsed briefly. And many claimed it was part of a fraud, leading to protests.

It’s still a mystery if trickery allowed the ruling party to stay in power. But the incident and the lack of rules and clarity were enough to create an independent and reliable electoral institution. And so, the National Electoral Institute, or INE, was born. 

“I think that the main differences between the Electoral Colleges from the United States and Mexico and the U.S. is that the one from the United States is based on trust, and the elections in Mexico are based on mistrust,” said Ricardo Chávez, a consultant and former adviser at the INE.

Chávez said that, unlike the U.S. Electoral College (FEC), the INE organizes autonomously any election nationwide. It has its own bylaws and the faculty to supervise, sanction and finance parties.

“In Mexico, we don’t have private money (to finance the parties), It comes from the government, which is pretty expensive, but it also allows it to make it an equal ground,” the consultant said.

Chávez said the institute developed a system to monitor radio, TV and advertising during campaign seasons to sanction libel, guarantee that each party gets equal air time and even to control propaganda.

“For example, if the electoral process has ended, and you still see signs of any party, they will charge the party with a fee,” said Chávez.

Chávez, a mathematician, said the institute created an algorithm to guarantee that districts have the same characteristics, so that each vote counts. Without it, Chávez says district boundaries could favor a party or candidate, while having less minority representation. 

“In the United States, this problem has a name: gerrymandering,” he said.

The consultant said the institute isn’t perfect, but continuously looks for improvement, from developing state-of-the-art voter IDs and ballots to establishing rules that guarantee gender parity and fairness.

Carin Zissis represents the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Mexico and has analyzed the electoral systems in Latin America. She says the recent U.S. presidential election proves that the U.S. would benefit from one federal electoral agency controlling the process.

“You know, one thing about the Electoral College in the United States is that it’s not very popular, and yet it seems that we’re stuck with it,” Zissis said.

Zissis said Mexico’s system avoids situations like the U.S. 2016 elections, when the candidate with more popular votes didn’t win, or like the 2020 election, when President Trump’s false claims of fraud created doubt even though Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than 8 million votes.

“In the United States there would be an appreciation for the kind of popular vote system like you have in Mexico,” she said.

Zissis said the INE’s intention of some regulations, like controlling air time and campaign propaganda, might be good, but still allows for extensive media campaigns.

“The amount of political advertising in Mexico is shocking,” she said.

Zissis said she was surprised to see during the recent U.S. campaign season reminders of  electoral practices in Mexico back in the day. She cited President Trump signing stimulus checks.  

“These are things that we have seen, in elections in Mexico that people are always calling out here as a way to influence vote outcomes,” said Zissis.

 Heidi Smith is a public policy professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico. She said it’s imperative for the Biden-Harris administration to strengthen the electoral system, as the Trump government has left it understaffed and under administrated. 

“It’s a partisan process, and one thing that the Mexican system has done is to create a non-partisan electoral process,” she said.

Smith said that, unlike the autonomous electoral system in Mexico, the electoral college is composed of sectors of state that are nominated by the governors. 

“One thing that we could do to reform the system would be to standardize the electoral processes,” said Smith.

The professor said part of the reform could include certifying and unifying ballots, creating a standard voting ID and institutionalizing the FEC to supervise and regulate parties and partially provide funding. However, she is skeptical on the possibilities to remodel the Electoral College.

“Processes could be improved, strengthening the FEC could happen, right? But an amendment, changing the Constitution is very unlikely," Smith said.

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Rodrigo Cervantes was KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2016 to 2021.