You Can Find a Lot of Hope in Mexico’s Democracy

The Headlines Are Dire, But the Country’s Citizen-Run Elections Should Remain Trustworthy—And a Model for the Rest of the World

A man in a mask and sunglasses cast a vote into a box. In the background, poll workers wearing masks sit at a blue table.

Mexico’s lottery system for election workers puts voters in charge. Columnist Joe Mathews explains its importance—and what’s at stake if the process is weakened. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

In these times of misinformation and mistrust, where might we find a way to restore trust in our elections and in our democracies?

There are two answers: in Mexico. And in ourselves.

You may be reading international news headlines about a Mexican conflict over democracy. There, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his congressional allies recently passed legislation to strip the country’s independent electoral authorities of some staffing and budget, as well as some of their power to police elections.

That is a troubling development. But the breathless news reports leave out crucial context about how elections are actually run in Mexico. And that context should offer both reassurance to anyone worried about that country and a spark of inspiration to the rest of the world.

I know the context because I’ve spent the last five years working to organize a major global forum on democracy that is finally taking place this week in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and the Yucatán regional capital of Mérida. And despite the recent controversy, and despite the country’s well-publicized problems with security and law enforcement, I’ve seen Mexican society’s enormous democratic progress up close.

Mexican governments, at all levels, can boast of both democratic development and participatory innovations. But among all of the examples of Mexican democratic practice, one stands out—Mexico’s faith in everyday people to run elections.

Mexico has a system for finding election workers that is unique in the world: It holds a national lottery to draw those workers from among its citizens (other Latin American countries have employed lotteries in elections, but not as thoroughly or at the scale of Mexico).

The lottery system began in the 1990s, during Mexico’s democratic transition, as a trust-building measure for a country with too much corruption and official impunity. The lottery draws one date and one letter. If the selected date is your birthday, and if the selected letter is the first letter of your second name, it’s your turn to be an election worker.

From there, the process has three stages. First, recruiters reach out, even visiting your home, to confirm your interest. Second, in advance of the election, you attend training sessions. Finally, on election day, you and other citizens set up a local precinct, run the balloting, count votes, and fill out official totals. You are part of a temporary army of more than 1 million people who assist in putting on elections.

Among all of the examples of Mexican democratic practice, one stands out—Mexico’s faith in everyday people to run elections.

Scholars of democracy often credit Mexico with having among the best run elections, and the most accurate vote counts, on Earth. This lottery system is also one big reason why Mexicans, despite the political polarization in their society, retain one of the world’s highest levels of faith in elections. Polling has shown that INE, the national independent electoral body, is among the country’s most trusted institutions, with more than 60 percent support.

That trust reflects reality. I’ve personally observed INE and state-level election officials in recent years, and they are dedicated, highly educated, and studiously impartial people. But in our time of untruths and conspiracy-mongering, the reality hits home with Mexicans because virtually everyone has a neighbor or friend who has had the first-hand experience of participating in the administration of elections, and seeing their trustworthiness for themselves.

“Undoubtedly, Mexicans trust their peers more than their leadership,” the Tec de Monterrey professor and anti-corruption scholar Marco Fernández recently told a journalist, in the process of describing his own time as a lottery-selected citizen election worker.

I wish people in the rest of the world could have the same experience. In my own state (California) and country (the U.S.), poll workers are increasingly the targets of conspiracies, threats, and even violence. The same is true of election workers in nations and local communities on every continent, whether the workers are paid staffers, volunteers, party hacks, or corrupt figures who shouldn’t be poll workers at all.

One way to reduce threats—and boost trust—might be to make the Mexican way of selecting election workers an international standard. I’d hope that angry people would be less likely to target election workers who are friends and neighbors. And bringing everyday people into the process could provide a real check on perceived, and real, attempts to corrupt voting.

Of course, such a system can’t be perfect. And Mexico’s isn’t.

For one thing, many Mexicans who are selected choose not to participate—just as many of us in the U.S. often fail to respond to legal summons to serve on juries in court trials. As many as 100,000 of the people who received at least some training as election workers have been no-shows at election time. In one study, no-shows indicated that they either underestimated their ability to get away from other responsibilities, or didn’t like the other everyday Mexicans they met during training.

But the system compensates for absenteeism. There are trained substitutes available to fill in, and if there aren’t enough substitutes, precincts can ask for volunteers among voters.

Mexico’s president has attacked electoral officials—he still spins conspiracies about his narrow loss in the 2006 presidential election—but he hasn’t dared to target the practice of having everyday citizens serve as election workers. It’s become too important a democratic tradition.

Still, his legislation—widely called “Plan B” because it’s a slimmed down version of a failed constitutional measure that would have more profoundly weakened electoral administration—is likely to force big cutbacks at the local level, precisely to the staff who train everyday Mexicans to run elections.

These cuts will put even more responsibility on regular people to handle their own elections. It’s not ideal, but it also reflects the hard truth about self-government on this planet:  Democracy is not something we can trust to other people.

Because, as the Christian philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed, democracy is like writing love letters or blowing your nose. These are things you may not do well. But these are things you ought to do for yourself.


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