A Hacienda of Cards? The Mexican Congressional Election and the 'Voto Nulo' Movement

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 24, 2009
One day after the United States celebrates its founding, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect new members to the lower house of Congress.  All 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies will be up for election on July 5, 300 chosen through the plurality system familiar to Americans, with 200 'top-up' seats allocated proportionally according to the vote share earned by each party. In political science parlance, this method is known as the Mixed-Member-Proportional or MMP system. Rather uniquly, article 59 of Mexico's constitution forbids prevents legislators from standing for reelection in consecutive contests; voters will be choosing an entirely new chamber. This is a mid-term contest, falling between the sexennial battle for the presidency, when the entire Congress – including the Senate – is up for election. In common with mid-term elections in the states, apathy is unfortunately common. This year, the electorate's disinterest has gotten a good deal of press; a vocal 'voto nulo' (nul-vote) movement has sprung from the grassroots and is turning heads by asking voters to cast symbolically spoiled ballots. Logistical difficulties have cropped up as well; the recent swine-flu scare necessitated awkwardly regulated political rallies, where supporters must stand several feet apart. Somewhat unusually, the current conflict between the government and various drug cartels has been the most salient issue in the campaign. This 'war' has been so intense that some observers have suggested that Mexico is a 'failed state' unable to guarantee domestic security.

These problems have led most prognosticators to predict gains for the center-left Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) along with losses from the governing center-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). The socialist Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) – associated with the unpopular leadership of the controversial Andrés Manuel López Obrador – is expected to lose ground as well. Though López Obrador very nearly won the presidency in 2006; his ungracious post-election behavior has alienated many voters from the PRD. The 'voto nulo' movement's success may be partly due to the PRD's fall from grace; the major alternative is now the PRI, which ruled Mexico in an increasingly heavy-handed and corrupt fashion for 71 years until voters cast the party out of the presidency and into the wilderness in 2000. Thus, the contest is between different flavors of the establishment, leading to voter disenchantment and resentment.

A final explanation for the success of 'voto nulo' can be derived from a quirk in the electoral system.  In most MMP systems, balloting entails two votes; one for a constituency candidate, the other for a party; constituency seats are decided by plurality rules, the top-up seats are then allocated to ensure that each party has roughly the same percentage of seats as votes. Conversely, the Mexican system allows only one vote, for a constituency candidate. These votes do double duty, based on the affiliation of a given constituency candidate, they also count as party votes. According to a study by Professors Clemente Quinones and Richard Vengroff of the University of Connecticut, this unorthodox method was implemented in the 1980s by the PRI, which hoped it would decrease sincere voting and allow the party to remain in office. However – to briefly summarize – the study concludes that most voters adapted to the system after a period of strategic voting, and largely returned to casting sincere ballots by the 2000 election (when the PRI lost power). Mexico's democracy is still learning to walk upright as it were, the long period of PRI domination only receded 9 years ago. It seems that voters are upset less with their system of voting than with the national political culture. However, Mexico has developed into an impressively open and pluralistic polity in a short period of time; those considering the arguments of the 'voto nulo' movement should keep in mind that the Mexican MPP system ensures that diverse views will be represented; for those who cast valid ballots, that is.