Explainer: Expatriate Voting Laws in Latin America

By Rachel Glickhouse and Mark Keller

Most Latin American countries allow for overseas voting. AS/COA Online looks at expat voting laws and the impact of these ballots on elections.

Due to large expatriate populations, many Latin American countries have adopted laws that allow citizens to vote abroad. Some countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Peru, have significant portions of voters living in Europe and the United States, giving more political clout to expats. Other countries, including Colombia and Ecuador, permit overseas residents to elect legislators to represent expat communities in national congresses. AS/COA Online takes a look at some of the legislation in Latin America that allows for overseas voting and the size of Latin American voter blocs abroad.

Argentina: In 1991, Argentina passed Law 24007, allowing its citizens to register to vote abroad and passed a 1993 decree to amend the law and set up the legal framework for overseas voting. Argentines abroad can vote for both presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as federal congressional candidates. While voting is mandatory—voters who miss an election must justify their lack of a vote at an electoral court or face fines— overseas voting is not obligatory

During the October 2011 presidential elections, over 50,000 Argentines overseas registered to vote. The largest voter group was in the United States; Los Angeles was the city with the largest group of voters worldwide at 6,000.

Bolivia: The country’s electoral code of 1984 allows for Bolivians to vote for president and vice president overseas. But it wasn’t until the passage of a new constitution in October 2008 and a transitional electoral law in April 2009 that overseas voting became a reality.

In mid-2009, the government’s electoral court began setting up the technical process to allow for voting abroad. Initially, the government hoped to register 300,000 voters out of the estimated 2 million Bolivians living outside of the country. The first overseas vote was held in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and the United States during the December 2009 elections, when over 169,000 Bolivians living abroad registered to vote. President Evo Morales even campaigned in Spain, home to approximately 300,000 Bolivians.

Brazil: The first law allowing for citizens to vote abroad passed in the Electoral Code of 1965, during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. The code provided for Brazilians to vote for president and vice president at consulates abroad. However, the rule was only put into practice with the passage of the constitution of 1988, which established a legal framework to implement voting abroad. The first presidential election with overseas voters took place in 1989. Now, the Senate is examining a proposal to allow Brazilians living abroad to elect representatives in Brazil’s lower house of Congress. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, and those who miss an election—even if they live abroad—must “justify” their vote and pay a fine, or risk losing certain rights such as applying for a passport or receiving credit from a government-run institution.

The United States is home to the largest group of external voters, and New York has the largest electoral pool outside Brazil, with more than 21,000 registered voters in 2010. During the 2010 presidential election, 200,394 overseas Brazilians registered to vote, but only 44.5 percent of these cast ballots during the first voting round.

Colombia: In 1961, Colombia passed Law 39, which allowed citizens living overseas to vote. The law was first used in 1962, when over 3,000 Colombians abroad voted for president. In 1986, the government reformed the electoral code, maintaining the right to vote in presidential elections abroad. The 1991 constitution made it possible for Colombians both traveling and living abroad to vote overseas. It also mandated that Colombians could vote in elections for the Senate as well as the presidency. In addition, the Constitution included a provision for Colombian residents abroad to elect a representative in Congress. However, this rule did not go into effect until the passage of Law 649 in 2001, which allowed Colombians to begin electing a congressional representative the following year.

During the June 2010 presidential election, 415,000 Colombians abroad were eligible to vote.

Costa Rica: Passed in September 2009, Costa Rica’s revised electoral code allows expatriates to vote in presidential elections and national referendums at consulates worldwide. Voters must have a national ID card and register prior to elections. In mid-2010, Costa’s Rica’s electoral tribunal began preparations for voting procedures abroad and for the 2014 presidential election. The government is establishing an electronic voting system in consulates overseas to attend to the estimated 200,000 Costa Ricans living abroad.

Dominican Republic: The Dominican Republic granted overseas citizens the right to vote for president and vice president in 1997 through Electoral Law 275-97, with plans to begin the process in 2000. However, Central Electoral Board budget constraints prevented enforcement until the 2004 presidential election. A 2010 constitutional reform, approved by Congress in 2011, granted Dominicans abroad the right to vote for representation in the country’s Chamber of Deputies as well. This year’s May 20 presidential election will be the first time Dominicans abroad will elect three deputies: two to represent Dominicans living in the Caribbean and Latin America, two for Europe, and three for Canada and the United States. Dominicans abroad can vote at their local consular offices, though areas with large Dominican populations also set up external voting centers.

For this year’s election, there are 328,649 Dominicans abroad registered to vote. Sixty-eight percent of these live in the United States—with a combined population larger than 27 of the 31 provinces of the Dominican Republic. Most of these voters reside in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Spain hosts another 19 percent of the Dominican vote abroad, and almost 4 percent reside in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean.

Ecuador: In September 2002, Ecuador’s Congress passed the Voting Law for Ecuadorans Abroad, allowing citizens living overseas to vote for president and vice president. The first elections held abroad took place in 2006, and Ecuadorans were also able to vote on referendums in 2007, 2008, and 2011. In September 2008 Ecuadorans voted for a referendum to establish a new Constitution, allowing them to vote abroad for other representatives, including mayors and governors.

During the 2009 presidential elections, over 184,000 Ecuadorans registered to vote, with the largest voter base in Spain at over 100,000 registered voters. Starting in 2009, Ecuadorans abroad were also allowed to elect six representatives to the National Assembly to represent Ecuador’s expatriates.

Honduras: Though Honduras had the legal framework in place for voting abroad with the Electoral and Political Organizations Law originally passed in 1979, it wasn’t until 2000 that the country’s Congress passed the Special Law for the Exercise of Suffrage of Hondurans Abroad, which allowed for overseas voting. The law allows Hondurans to vote in presidential elections at consular offices abroad, but the first election with overseas voting held in 2001 only had polls in six cities in the United States. In order to be eligible, voters must register with the National Electoral Census before voting and are required to have a Honduran ID card.

During the most recent presidential election in November 2009, nearly 20,000 Hondurans in the United States registered to vote. The government is now considering opening voting in Spain for the 2013 presidential elections.

Mexico: Mexicans abroad lobbied for their right to vote in the 1990s, based on their large impact on the Mexican economy through remittances. The 1996 Political Reform of the State removed the requirement that Mexicans vote within their residential district, but still required citizens abroad to return to the country to vote. In 2005, legislation passed the Mexican Congress giving citizens abroad the right to participate in presidential elections. To vote from abroad, Mexicans must be registered with the Federal Electoral Institute’s Registry of Voters Residing Abroad. To do so, Mexicans must present a photocopy of the electoral voting card to authorities either by visiting their local consulate, or submitting forms through the mail. The Federal Election Institute then mails a ballot to the voter, which must be returned before election day in Mexico. However, one of the limitations to Mexico’s external voting is the requirement that Mexicans hold a physical electoral voting card, which can only be obtained in Mexico. Many Mexicans abroad—especially unauthorized migrants—are unable or unwilling to make the journey home to obtain one.

Though over 10 million Mexicans citizens live outside Mexico, only 55,000 registered to vote in the 2006 election. This year, despite greater outreach, that number increased to only 62,000. Of these, the majority—45,000—come from the United States, with Texas and California making up half that total. Canada, with around 3,000 registered voters, is the second largest source of voters; Spain, with 2,000, is third.

Panama: Though Panama’s 1983 electoral code permitted Panamanians living abroad to vote, the law required expatriates to return home to vote. In late 2006, a reform to the electoral code passed by Congress allowed Panamanians to vote abroad for president and vice president. To reduce costs, the Electoral Tribunal agreed to use mail-in ballots and set up a voter registry.

By April 2008, only 1,706 voters registered, the large majority in the United States. The first overseas vote took place during the May 2009 presidential elections, though the Electoral Tribunal received less than 500 votes from overseas by the day of the elections. One limitation to overseas voting is that Panamanians who acquired citizenship abroad cannot vote.

Peru: Voting in Peru is mandatory, and citizens face a fine if they fail to vote, even if they live abroad. Peru’s Election Law from 1998 allows Peruvians overseas to vote for president and in referendums. Because of remittances, Peruvians living abroad represent the second largest “region” of the country in terms of economic impact.

During the April 2011 presidential election, 754,000 Peruvians registered to vote abroad, with over 240,000 registered in the United States. During the first round of elections, over 402,000 Peruvians overseas cast votes, though nearly a quarter of them were null or blank votes. In the second round in June 2011, some considered overseas voters to be a possible critical bloc to decide the elections, but around 50 percent of registered overseas voters failed to appear at the polls. Roughly 70 percent of the votes cast abroad were for Keiko Fujimori, while Ollanta Humala won the election.

Paraguay: Paraguay’s constitution of 1992 blocked citizens from voting abroad. In April 2011, Paraguay’s Congress voted for an amendment to the Constitution to allow overseas voting rights for citizens. The constitutional reform was sanctioned in October 2011, when Paraguayans voted in favor of a referendum to permit voting abroad. Over 722,000 Paraguayans live abroad, with the largest constituency in Spain.

Paraguayans living overseas will be able to vote in the next presidential election in April 2013. As of February 2012, around 20,000 Paraguayans living abroad registered to vote. One of the obstacles to vote is that Paraguayans must have a valid national identification card, though many living abroad have expired IDs. An amendment to allow Paraguayans to use their passports to vote failed to pass in Congress.

Venezuela: Venezuela’s 1999 Bolivarian Constitution enshrined the right of citizens to vote from abroad, though it was first exercised in 2003. Venezuelans abroad must enroll in the Electoral Registry at their local consulate. Though each consulate’s rules are distinct, most require Venezuelans to show up in person at their local consulate to enroll. Venezuelans must provide proof of their citizenship and their legal right to reside abroad. As of April 15, 2012 Venezuela’s National Electoral Council counted 99,626 registered voters abroad in the Electoral Registry. The Venezuelan opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity estimates that 600,000 eligible Venezuelan voters live abroad.

During this year’s enrollment period, many Venezuelans abroad complained of long lines, short consular hours, and other hurdles to registering. The closing of the Miami Consulate—in whose jurisdiction one-third of expat Venezuelan voters reside—in January 2012 also raised concerns about that jurisdiction’s residents’ ability to register to vote, and for their participation in presidential elections in October. Venezuelans abroad tend to be fiercely anti-chavista: 90 percent of voters supported President Hugo Chávez’s recall in 2004, though the measure failed with 60 percent against in Venezuela. Venezuelan expats are considered loyal opposition voters.

Which Countries Are Still Reforming Laws to Allow Expat Voting?

Not all Latin American countries allow citizens abroad to cast ballots. Chile’s Congress rejected a reform to allow overseas voting in May 2011. In Uruguay, a referendum to allow overseas voting failed to pass in February 2009.  Now, Chileans abroad are pressuring for reforms to allow nearly 1 million expats to vote. Uruguay’s Broad Front party is making similar calls, seeking electoral reform or another referendum to enfranchise the estimated 600,000 Uruguayans abroad.

Several Central American countries lack overseas voting. El Salvador began exploring expat suffrage early this year, and Guatemalans abroad still await a reform to electoral law despite a June 2011 ruling in favor of overseas voting by the country’s constitutional court. Although Nicaragua’s electoral law allows for overseas voting in presidential and congressional elections, the Nicaraguan government has not held voting abroad yet.