Look to Mexico for help in restoring trust in democracy

Where might we find a way to restore trust in our democracy?

In Mexico. And in ourselves.

You may be reading international news about a conflict over democracy in Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his congressional allies recently passed legislation to strip the country’s independent electoral authorities of some staffing, budget and power.

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 about Mexico and a spark of inspiration to the rest of the world.

I know the context because I’ve spent years organizing a global forum on democracy that takes place this week in Mexico City. And despite the recent controversy, and despite the country’s well-publicized problems with security, I’ve seen Mexico’s democratic development and participatory innovations up close.

Of all the fascinating 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. The lottery system began in 1997, during Mexico’s democratic transition, as a trust-building measure for a country plagued by corruption and impunity.

The lottery draws one date and one letter. If the date is your birthday, and if the letter is the first letter of your second name, it’s your turn to work the elections.

The process has three stages. First, recruiters reach out, even visiting your home, to confirm your interest. Second, you attend training sessions before the election. Finally, on election day, you and your neighbors run the balloting in a precinct, count votes, and fill out official totals.

Scholars of democracy often credit Mexico with having some of the best-run elections on Earth. This lottery system also explains why Mexicans, despite their political polarization, retain one of the world’s highest levels of faith in elections. INE, the national independent electoral body, is among the country’s most trusted institutions, with more than 60% support in polls.

That trust reflects reality and is reinforced by experience. Virtually every Mexican has served as an election worker administration of elections, and seen the trustworthiness of the electoral bodies for themselves.

I wish people in the rest of the world could have the same experience. In California and across the United States, poll workers are the targets of conspiracies, threats and even violence. The same is true of election workers in nations on every continent, whether the workers are paid staffers, volunteers, or party hacks who shouldn’t be poll workers at all.

To reduce threats — and boost trust — why not make the Mexican way of selecting election workers international standard? Angry folks might be less likely to target election workers who are their neighbors. And bringing regular voters 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. As many as 100,000 of the people who received at least some training as election workers have been no-shows at election time, according to one study. But the system compensates for absenteeism. There are trained substitutes for missing poll workers. 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.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column and the Democracy Column for Zócalo Public Square.

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