The word “democracy” will be tossed around a lot this year. As happens every twelve years, both of North America's federal republics are holding full federal elections.
The root of the word "democracy" comes from the Greek "demos" -- people. Government by the people is what it implies. However, in both countries, it is representatives of the people who exercise government at the federal level, leading to a more correct description of the USA and Mexico as representative republics. Nevertheless in both nations there are local governments where true democracy is exercised. Communities in New England, Michigan and Minnesota hold town meetings to vote on local issues. Some municipalities in Mexico rule themselves by 'uses and customs' (usos y costumbres) in which all residents in good standing are welcome to participate.
While the US electoral system with all its quirks is fairly well known throughout the world, Mexico has a number of lesser known and frequently overlooked yet fascinating subtleties.
The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), in charge of Mexico's federal elections, gives elections uniformity on a national level. State electoral institutes only oversee state elections. Each state has its own electoral calendar and only a few coincide with federal election day.
Parties are required to run a full slate of candidates. This includes a candidate and alternate for each legislative position. Though Mexico has no alternate for the executive at any level of government, it does have alternates for every senator and deputy. If a senator or deputy leaves office for any reason, the alternate is sworn in.
Mexicans will be voting for deputies, senators, and a president on July 1st. No candidates are allowed to run for re-election. Each polling station will have three ballot boxes corresponding to the three offices. Voting is on paper ballots with one for each position for which votes are cast. Candidates' names are printed on the ballots next to the emblem of their party. No independent candidates' names are printed on the ballots although there is space for write-ins.
Citizens vote in their neighborhoods. If away from home they can vote at special polling booths. If outside one’s electoral district a citizen cannot vote for deputy. If out of state, one can only vote for president. If out of the country citizens may vote for president by mail.
Mexicans are not required to carry any identification document. Nonetheless identification is needed for all kinds of reasons. Voter registration cards are free and have become the identification of choice. If you are not yourself a Mexican citizen then ask a Mexican friend to show you her/his voter's registration card – it's an impressively complete ID. At the polls citizens are required to show this card.
Mexico's is a multiparty system. Seven parties will compete in the 2012 election. Though five parties have chosen their presidential candidates, to date there are only two nominees! Three parties aligned to run one candidate -- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Two other parties aligned to run Enrique Peña Nieto. The remaining two parties are still in the process of choosing candidates. The presidential candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. There is no electoral college and no requirement to win by 50% + 1 of the votes.
By joining coalitions with larger parties, small parties are guaranteed by the larger party a predetermined percentage of the national vote, thus not risking their status as a legal party (requiring 2% of the national vote) and maintaining access to proportional representation seats in both legislative chambers.
The lower house of congress, the Chamber of Deputies, is made up of 500 members -- 300 elected by direct vote and 200 by proportional representation. A complicated formula distributes 50 of the proportional seats to the parties that win the election in each of five geographical areas, and 150 seats are distributed among the parties who lose the election!
The Senate of the Union is made up of 128 members. Sixty-four are elected by direct vote (two from each federative entity), and 64 represent the second and third placed party in each entity. Entities are referred to because, though not a state, the Federal District participates equally in the election.
Party (or coalition) slates of candidates cannot have more than 60% of the same gender. In practice this guarantees 40% of the candidates will be women but does not guarantee they will make up 40% of the winning candidates. The current Chamber of Deputies is 28% women.
When I as a US citizen vote by absentee ballot in Claremont, California, not only is my vote usually not counted (absentee ballots are only counted if they could swing the election), but my candidate for representative has never won in the decades I've voted. The winning candidate does not reflect my point of view. No one represents me in the US House of Representatives. Mexicans, however, know that if the candidates they vote for do not win there will still be members of congress, chosen by their party, who represent them. In my view, proportional representation, at the legislative level, moves Mexico closer to democracy than the United States.
How's that for a controversial statement?