8 things the U.S. election system could learn from Mexico's
Supporters of candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador listen his press conference in the street in Mexico City on Sunday.
July 2nd, 2012
07:19 AM ET

8 things the U.S. election system could learn from Mexico's

Editor's note: Robert A. Pastor is professor and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University and author of "The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future." The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert A. Pastor.

By Robert A. Pastor, Special to CNN

The main question asked about the Mexican presidential elections on July 1 is whether victory by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) means that Mexico will return to its authoritarian past.

The answer is simple: The PRI has changed because Mexico has changed. For more than six decades, the PRI manipulated elections and ruled Mexico in a quasi-authoritarian system. However, between 1988 until 2000, two Mexican presidents – Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo – gradually responded to internal and external pressures and opened the economy and the political system.

I have observed elections in Mexico since 1986 and witnessed the transformation of the election system from the worst to the best in the Americas. The projected victory by PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto will not turn Mexico backwards. Mexicans have chosen democracy, and after two terms under PAN presidents, they are voting for change.

Indeed, in this year when the United States is engaged in a ferocious campaign for the presidency, the question that ought to be asked is: How does the U.S. electoral system compare to Mexico's? I undertook a comprehensive study of the electoral systems in North America, and the good news is that the United States came in third. The bad news is that there are only three countries in North America.

In fact, the Mexican electoral system is much fairer, professional, independent and non-partisan than the U.S. system on all eight criteria for assessing election administration:

1. Nonpartisan election administration. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) is a nonpartisan, professional institution in which political party representatives have access but no control. IFE manages a nation-wide system with uniform rules. In contrast, the United States has 13,000 counties and municipalities that manage our national elections with different rules and less capacity. Partisan officials generally control the process, and in a close election, the opposition is often suspicious of the result.

Follow the Mexican election coverage in Spanish at CNNMéxico.com

2. Registration and identification of voters. IFE actively registers about 95% of 77 million eligible voters and gives each a biometric, photo ID card, which Mexicans use as a primary identification. The registration list is audited regularly, and the photos of the voters are on the list in each polling site.

In contrast, U.S. states and communities passively register about 55% of eligible voters, and the lists are flawed with many duplicates and errors, especially between states and counties. Each state has different rules, and in states where Republicans have a majority, their focus on preventing electoral fraud has led them to restrict registration and require IDs, while Democrats are more concerned about voters' access and believe the Republican ID laws are aimed to suppress voter turnout from poor people or minorities. The truth is that we ought to adopt Mexico's national, biometric ID system. That would eliminate duplicates and simplify the registration and voting process.

Related: Voter ID laws: Discrimination or 'no big deal'?

3. Poll workers. Mexico views the conduct of elections like Americans view jury duty – a civic obligation – and they recruit on a random basis a large number of people from each district. They are well-trained in every stage of the electoral process. When I asked a U.S. election official about the criteria for choosing poll workers, he said: "I'll take anyone with a pulse." Most poll workers are very senior citizens without the kind of stamina necessary to manage a polling station for 12 hours, and in most cases, they are poorly trained as compared to their Mexican counterparts.

4. Campaign finance/corruption. Each of Mexico's main political parties receive approximately $24 million of public financing for a three-month campaign. They can also receive 10% of their funds from supporters, but no one can give more than $71,000. In contrast, in the United States, there will be an estimated $6 billion raised privately, and with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money. Major contributors could have extraordinary access and substantial influence over public policy. Some would define that as corruption on a scale that even the drug cartels couldn't compete.

5. Equitable access to the media/negative advertising. IFE pays for media advertising, and ensures that the candidates have equal access. IFE also tries to discourage any negative advertising. A substantial amount of the $6 billion raised by the candidates in the United States goes for media advertising, and a recent study showed that 70 percent of ads in this year’s presidential contest has been negative. Just think what $6 billion could do as an endowment to a university; it would have lasting positive effects. Who believes that negative advertising can have a lasting positive effect?

6. Neutralizing incumbency. Since its revolution, Mexico's constitution prohibits re-election in order to prevent incumbents from using government to manipulate the electoral process. IFE goes even further by trying to prevent the president from even campaigning in the most indirect way for his party's candidates. In the United States, incumbents have a huge advantage in fund-raising because special interests can contribute to members of Congress while they are writing laws.

7. Judging disputes. Mexico has minutely-detailed election laws, and a professional and independent Electoral Tribunal to judge election disputes. The United States has few laws and no court with the expertise to settle such disputes.

8. Observers. Mexico invites international polling observers while the U.S. government does not welcome any international observers, and only two states allow them.

It was partly because of decades of electoral fraud that the Mexican people decided to construct a completely professional, independent and nonpartisan election organization. This has not eliminated all problems, but as compared to the thousands of complaints received by U.S. election authorities, the concerns from Mexico are minor.

A measure of commitment is that Mexico's IFE spends roughly 10 times more per capita than the United States to manage a state-of-the-art electoral process. The U.S. system is so antiquated, decentralized, dysfunctional, under-funded with public resources, and over-funded with private interest money that it behooves us Americans to stop asking whether the PRI is a return to the past in Mexico and to start asking why can't our electoral system be as good as Mexico's.

The U.S. could and the U.S. should establish an independent national nonpartisan election administration with a national biometric ID, a single national (or inter-operable) registration list, restrictions on private funding, public financing for short campaigns, poll workers that are recruited by lot and well-trained, disincentives for negative advertising, independent electoral courts, and international and domestic observers. There is much work for us to do before we can catch up to Mexico.

– The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert A. Pastor.

Related: Fareed Zakaria on why Mexico is on the rise

Topics: Elections • Mexico • Politics

soundoff (388 Responses)
  1. KIRA

    you dont know anything on electing presidents either way here in the good old USA for us you will be deported

    July 8, 2012 at 1:51 am | Reply
  2. KIRA

    if anyone should be learning you should be its luck that you came in third when you dont know much about polatics

    July 8, 2012 at 1:55 am | Reply
  3. Manolo

    This is an outrageous, pontificating, albeit delusional, article about fixing a system that is nowhere near as broken as the one being written about. I live in México, in fact, I live in the most dangerous city in México, Ciudad Juárez. And even though violence is one thing, and elections are another, they have many things in common when it comes to México's politics. To present eight points in support of a corrupt system is not only silly, but you're insulting every English-reading (or Google translating) Mexican's intelligence to the Nth degree. This is very irresponsible reporting, sir.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  4. Manolo

    "Major contributors could have extraordinary access and substantial influence over public policy. Some would define that as corruption on a scale that even the drug cartels couldn't compete."

    Seriously? C'mon, man. This article is utterly ridiculous.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  5. Luis del Villar

    What about Greenland??? Aren't there FOUR countries in North America????

    July 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  6. Eduardo

    With all due respect Fareed, you are turning a blind eye to the corruption that reigned in this election. Vote buying was massive and widespread, and fortunately for us, social media has all the proofs to uncover it. Your FBI uncovered duplicate ballots, and the printing house for the election accepted printing an additional 2.5 million ballots which were delivered to the states on July 6th, a week after the election, can you tell me why?
    I had not seen your program before today but had heard good comments. When I watched your interview of Pena Nieto I was very disappointed...funny enough I could tell even you got frustrated when Pena through a translator wasn't able to answer any of your questions. He is the representative of everything that is corrupt in Mexico, whether you like it or not, and the election was a great example of it
    Even Al-Jazeera proved that votes were bought, not sure why you can't see it. If the candidates in the US were to behave the same way

    July 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  7. Marco

    I disagree. Please look at the reports of ballot fraud in Mexico's last election. Many ballets were thrown away. Televisa announced Pena Nieto as winner two years ago. Also televisa demonized and ridiculized the PRD candidate in many comedies. They also somehow managed to get dead mexicans to vote for PRI. I show as voted for PRI and I did not even visited the country. They also showed 1000 votes for PRI when only 700 people registered for that area. I would hate to have this in America.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:10 am | Reply
  8. JAL

    "Many ballets were thrown away"
    many tutu wearers are sad.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  9. David

    A great article, and something that would lead to equitable reform in our election system. Not sure that we could get to enough of a consensus to agree on all of these, but it seems that each would stand on its own as a change to consider.

    July 13, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  10. Hector

    1st difference, Electoral system in Mexico is based on distruth, everything is build up under the premise (a real one) that all parties will try to cheat, so that makes it a really very expensive process, if not one of the expensiers in the world bcs all of the controls that have to be made. And bcs of those controls is one of the safest It's actually a really good system (that can get improved as everything can improve) of course if you have a flood (corruption) trying to brake through you can't expect you won't have some places where the damp leaks, but the important thing is that the damp holds

    Now, there are 2 types of 'frauds' the actuall fraud where physical votes are tampered and the inequities. It's clear that the first type din't have an impact in the final result, no with that margin difference and besides all parties had an observator in every poll.

    For the second type unfairness; that's so hard to prove and all of the parties had their share i think left can argue with reason that there were a lot and that's something needs to be solved but they can't say honestly that they did none so in their minds to steal a little is different than to steal a lot and since they cheat less they deserve to win.

    So as a poster said before, americans trusth their politicians, I don't know why , they trusth their corporations, that also is beyond my comprehension, and that's whay they have the messy sytem they have. But they're like ' hey my brother can be a liar, a thief, can be corrupted but no one in the world can say it only I have the right to' and that's avoiding reality

    Now, even if Mexico had an utopic, perfect electoral system there will be always people claiming fraud...

    July 21, 2012 at 1:28 am | Reply
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    He is not saying that the corruption in Mexico is good, he is simply stating that in fact corruption and violence exist at such a high levels in Mexico and therefore Mexico has less holes in its voting methods to prevent fraud in comparison to the US. The US needs a system that is the same across the board, that is easy to understand and straight-forward to count.

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