Mexico will hold federal elections in 2018. These elections are considered historically significant because they are the first to allow independent candidates not affiliated with an existing political party to run for office. The country amended its constitution in 2014 to allow independent candidates to run alongside established party candidates. Candidates must collect signatures from 1 percent of the national voter roll (866,593 for this election). These signatures must also be distributed among at least 17 federal states or districts and must comprise at least 1 percent of the registered voters in each of them. Presidential hopefuls must meet their goal by February 19th, 2018, to be included on the official ballot.
In an attempt to assist with the gathering of signatures, the National Electoral Institute (abbreviated INE in Spanish), the nonpartisan organization that oversees elections in Mexico, released a mobile app that allows prospective independent candidates to quickly and securely gather signatures from their constituents. This is a stark change compared to the pen-and-paper method of the midterm elections in 2015.
The process is as follows: aspirants and their campaign assistants download the app, solicit signatures in person, photograph a supporter and both sides of his or her voter ID, and then have them sign electronically in the app to complete the process. The citizen’s information is promptly deleted from the device once it is transmitted to the INE. To date, approximately 5,014,367 registered voters have backed one of the six leading independent presidential candidates –– a figure that becomes more significant when one considers that the process began on October 16, 2017, and that each voter may only back one independent candidate at the presidential, senatorial, and deputyship levels. Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, the former governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, currently leads the race among the independent presidential candidates to collect signatures, having gathered 1,700,139 as of January 23.
This is not the only effort made by the INE to streamline the participation of Mexican citizens in the voting process; another app launched by the organization, VotoMX, is designed to help register Mexican expatriates to vote through a similar process of electronic verification. While they are innovative, these methods are not without their problems. Early in the process, independent candidate María de Jesús Patricio Hernández was granted permission by the INE to gather signatures the old-fashioned way in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Yucatán because the earthquakes that shook Mexico in September, together with the marginalized status of people living in these states, would limit the usefulness of the new app, as those populations may not have access to smartphones or the internet. Mexico’s uneven technological landscape presents another hurdle, with some regions lacking a stable internet connection. Another candidate, Pedro Ferriz de Con, requested that private citizens also be able to download the candidate support app to further ease the process. He stated that bugs in the app, such as crashes in the main portal used to register the volunteers working with the candidates and misinformation about which devices could actually support the software, have caused him and other candidates to lose precious time in the race to gather signatures, and he called for an extension to make up for the time loss. The INE extended the deadline for signature collection by seven days, with a new deadline of February 19, and has also allowed all candidates to supplement their digital collecting efforts with traditional paper signatures in 283 marginalized municipalities.
Technical issues aside, VotoMX is currently only available on Android devices and only transmits information in Spanish, despite the fact that many expatriates are bilingual and may be more comfortable using another language. The continued presence of these issues calls into question whether or not the INE adequately considered the availability of a stable internet connection or data coverage in deciding to push through a technological reform of its electoral process. Some argue that much of the population is not yet equipped to fully embrace it, pointing to the fact that many do not own a smartphone. Though innovation almost always brings with it numerous instances of trial and error, the beginnings of a historical round of elections is arguably not the time to experiment with such crucial practices.
Angie Vertti (’20) is an intern at the Baker Institute Mexico Center and a sophomore at Rice University majoring in political science, sociology and policy studies.