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A voter casts a ballot in Mexico City, June 6, 2021. © 2021 Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via AP

 (Washington, DC) – Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal to modify the constitution to overhaul the country’s electoral system could seriously undermine electoral authorities’ independence, putting free, fair elections at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. Legislators should reject the proposed constitutional changes, which would contravene international human rights standards.

The president’s proposal would eliminate many of the safeguards intended to preserve the independence of the two national authorities it would charge with overseeing all elections. Congress is expected to discuss and vote on the proposal before the current legislative session ends on December 15, 2022.

“President López Obrador’s proposed changes to the electoral system would make it much easier for whichever party holds power to co-opt the country’s electoral institutions to stay in power,” said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Given Mexico’s long history of one-party rule maintained through questionable elections, it is extremely problematic that legislators would consider a highly regressive proposal that would weaken the independence of the elections authority.”

Under President López Obrador’s proposal, all state electoral institutes and state electoral tribunals – the independent authorities that administer most state and local elections, enforce campaign rules, and resolve electoral disputes – would be eliminated. Their responsibilities would be transferred to the National Electoral Institute and the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which would become the sole arbiters of all elections in Mexico.

The proposal would also change the way the governing members of the National Electoral Institute and the Federal Electoral Tribunal are appointed, eliminating safeguards intended to ensure their independence from the government. The proposal would shorten and unify the members’ terms so that all governing members of both electoral authorities would be appointed at once, in the same process, during each six-year presidential term. Currently, these officials serve staggered, nine-year terms and are appointed in separate selection processes by different officials in different years.

Reducing the number of authorities responsible for administering elections and making it possible to name all electoral official at once would make it much easier for the government to influence the selection process, which could undermine electoral authorities’ independence, Human Rights Watch said.

Mexico’s current electoral system, which includes many safeguards to protect the independence of electoral authorities, is the result of decades of reforms that began with the creation of the electoral institute in 1990 and led to the end of one-party rule in 2000. For most of the 20th century, one political party controlled nearly every public institution in Mexico. The government organized regular elections, which were widely considered to be neither free nor fair, and nearly always maintained power.

The president’s proposal would also eliminate the constitutional mandate for the independent National Electoral Institute, rather than the government, to administer the electoral registry, the official list of registered voters. During most of the years of one-party rule in Mexico, the government administered electoral registry.

The possibility that the electoral registry could be transferred to the control of the government could contravene Mexican law and international standards for protecting personal data. These standards bar organizations that hold personal information, such as names, photos, and fingerprints, from sharing that information without the express permission of the people whose data might be transferred.

Each country is required under international law, to protect citizens’ right to vote and participate in the conduct of public affairs by ensuring that there is an independent electoral authority that can supervise elections fairly and impartially. While international law does not prescribe any particular electoral system, states should not put in place measures that could weaken the independence or impartiality of electoral authorities.

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