California Election May Hinge on Voters Living in Mexico

As an election junkie I am interested in — but not too surprised by — the fact that a group of voters living in another country may decide a special election in San Diego today.

The election is to replace the disgraced mayor, Robert Filner (D), who resigned under pressure for sexual harassment.

Overseas voters in American elections are an interesting group, but are about as hard to categorize as the proverbial herd of cats. They are scattered around the globe, they are voting through 50 different absentee voting systems, and there is no network of precinct captains.

But things are different in this election. The voters living somewhere else in this case, presumably mostly naturalized citizens of Mexican descent, are in Tijuana, the Mexican city just south of San Diego. They are not overseas, they are on the other side of the border fence, and they are presumably voting at polling stations in San Diego.

There are enough of them, and they are concentrated enough, that there are newspaper reports of billboards in Tijuana boosting one of the candidates in the race.

That candidate is City Councilman David Alvarez (D), who, if elected, would become San Diego’s first Latino mayor. It is not clear who is paying for the billboards; but it is obvious that most of the votes coming from Tijuana would notbe supporting the Anglo who has the Republican nomination, Councilman Kevin Faulkner.

Some of Tijuana’s San Diego voters will be voting absentee, but most, I suspect, are commuter workers and their spouses, people who reside in Mexico (where the cost of living, notably housing, is lower) and work in the United States (where wages are much higher).

They keep U.S. addresses for a variety of purposes and thus can more or less legally vote in San Diego. Voting from an address of convenience is not a West Coast monopoly; currently the Tea Party in Kansas is giving the senior GOP senator from that state, Pat Roberts, a hard time for not owning a house in Kansas and voting from the home of some donors. Former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) lost his 2012 re-nomination fight partly because of a similar residence issue.

We do not know the size of this group of commuting San Diego voters, but it presumably is in the thousands and they might swing the election to Alvarez if it is close enough. The story cited above said that there are 3,200 registered voters regarded as permanent residents of the city with mailing addresses in another country. I suspect that there are a lot more with homes in Tijuana and mailing addresses in San Diego.

More than 40 years ago, in my first extensive immigration research study, our team studied commuter workers along both the southern and northern borders. We checked out the much larger green card commuter population as well as the small U.S. citizen population that lived in one place and worked in another. We found that earlier, on January 27, 1966, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had counted 3,052 citizen commuters crossing at San Ysidro, the port of entry just south of San Diego.

U.S. citizens have been crossing that border daily for a long time. In our 1970 report we did not comment on commuting voters, but we did notice substantial numbers of public school students crossing daily from their homes in Mexico to schools in the United States, presumably using relatives’ addresses when they registered for school.

The commuters were not all Hispanic. There was, for example, a rabbi who worked in McAllen, Texas, commuting from his home in Mexico. He probably was the rabbi in McAllen, but I cannot be sure of that, so many years later.

In 1970 there were roughly 100,000 green card holders and citizens crossing from Mexico, and smaller groups coming in from Canada. The numbers are probably much higher now, at least on the southern border.

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