More than 100 Americans packed into Sereno Moreno, a cantina in a trendy neighborhood in Mexico City, to watch the second presidential debate on Oct. 9. CNN blared in English on the nine TV screens suspended from the walls around the room, while two friendly retirees wearing dark blue “Hillary for President 2016” T-shirts welcomed attendees and instructed them to sign in.
Beside the retirees, volunteers armed with manuals and address books helped guests fill out voter registration forms and absentee ballots, while others sold T-shirts for $8 and buttons for $2. The volunteers are members of the Mexico Committee of Democrats Abroad (DA), an official organization of the Democratic Party.
“Our primary activity is to help all American citizens, regardless of their politics, register to vote,” said Ralston Darlington, the chairman of DA Mexico, that evening in the cantina.
Americans living abroad have been able to vote in U.S. elections since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Voting abroad is a subset of absentee voting, which requires voters to register for each election in the state where they last resided. The District of Columbia and 36 states also allow citizens who have never lived in the U.S. to vote if they have a parent or legal guardian who lived there.
Mexico has the largest population of U.S. citizens living abroad of any country, although the exact number is not known. Mexico’s 2010 census counted around 740,000 U.S. born foreigners live in Mexico, but Darlington and other members of Democrats Abroad estimate that in fact there are 1.5 to 2 million Americans in Mexico.
To register voters in Mexico City, volunteers go to English-speaking churches, American schools, private clubs, the American Benevolent Society and other organizations, said Julie Juliano, another of the volunteers.
But a significant number of U.S. citizens in Mexico do not frequent any of these traditionally American expatriate venues, making them difficult to find and register, said Darlington. He estimates that about 500,000 Mexican-American dual citizens who are eligible to vote in the U.S. currently live in Mexico. Many Mexican-Americans have been spurred to vote this year because of remarks Trump has made about Mexicans and one Mexican- American judge since the beginning of his campaign, said Adrian Smith, one of the voter registration volunteers in Mexico City’s cantina.
Due to a lack of data and resources, finding this subset of voters, registering them, and getting them their ballots is not always easy.
“We don’t have the money and the power to get to all these people,” said Dee Dee Camhi, a retired teacher from Boston who founded DA chapters in Ajijic, Jalisco and Puerto Vallarta.
“When Mexican-Americans come back to Mexico, they’re Mexicans,” added Larry Pihl, the DA Get-Out-The-Vote coordinator, who is also based in Ajijic. Many of these voters don’t know they can vote if they don’t live in the U.S., he said.
To combat this lack of information, Democrats Abroad ran Spanish ads on local radio stations, used WhatsApp Messenger to direct voters to a central location to register, publicized information and events on Facebook, and put up posters in rural communities.
A month ago, Pihl and Camhi drove two hours to register voters in Valle de Juarez, a 5,000-person town in the mountains around Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco. A woman from the town, Corina Toscano, 38, got in touch with Pihl and Camhi after she heard from a friend that as a U.S. citizen, she could vote. Born outside Chicago, Illinois, Toscano has spent her life between Illinois and Valle de Juarez.
“Here in this community, there are so many people that live in the United States,” she said. “Almost everyone from here is over there. These are positive people who dedicate themselves to working hard.”
Toscano said Donald Trump’s impact on the race motivated her to vote.
“I decided to exercise my right as an American citizen because of the ugly campaign that man is running,” she said.
Toscano’s friend, Jesus Contreras, helped her and the DA volunteers coordinate with municipal authorities and set up shop in the town hall. In one day, they registered 25 people, almost all from Illinois. But there was another obstacle: 20 of these voters had no Internet connection, much less an email address.
“The biggest impediment for individuals to register and request ballots is the large number of people in rural areas who have no Internet capability,“ Pihl explained in an email.
Motivated by the high stakes of this election, a man from the town who is not a U.S. citizen volunteered his email address so that everyone could receive and print out their ballots, said Pihl.
Norma Barragan, 37, was among those in town who did have access to email. After living in Chicago for 20 years, the Mexican-born Barragan said she became a U.S. citizen last year, but assumed she could not vote because she moved back to Mexico in January. She found out through a Facebook post that she could cast a vote. Nonetheless, as she went to the town hall to register with Pihl and Camhi, she was skeptical.
“I was scared that they would defraud me,” she said. But when she was only asked for her license number and proof that she was a U.S. citizen, she registered to vote for the first time.
Corina Toscano’s brother, Orlando Toscano, who was born in Aurora, Illinois, also registered to vote in Valle de Juarez. Although he had known he could vote in previous elections, he said this was the first time he felt an urgency to do so.
“What most motivated me is that Donald Trump is messed up in the head,” he said. “My main reason for voting this time is to stop a racist from being president of the United States.” He printed out his ballot to vote for Hillary Clinton.
American voters in Mexico face a final hurdle after they register. Absentee voters who receive their ballots via email must print these out and mail a hard-copy to early voting clerks in the U.S. The mail system in Mexico, however, is slow and unreliable.
“That’s where we [Democrats Abroad] come in,” said Juliano, one of the volunteers from Mexico City. “We, personally, take the requests for ballots and the ballots to the U.S. Embassy to be sent in the Diplomatic Pouch.”
Three weeks after they registered voters, Pihl and Camhi returned to Valle de Juarez to collect the ballots and mail them to voting clerks thousands of miles away in Illinois, Georgia, Florida, and California. Today, as voters go to the polls, Corina Toscano anxiously watches special coverage of the election on ForoTV, a cable Mexican channel, hoping that Clinton will win.
“At least she won’t build a wall, dividing us,” she said. “We won’t lose with her.”