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Argentina wants foreigners, 16-year-olds to vote

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina is rethinking what it means to be a citizen, proposing radical changes that would have both foreigners and 16-year-olds vote to determine who should run the country.

President Cristina Fernandez's legislative powerbrokers say the proposed electoral laws will enhance democracy and challenge the world to treat voting as a universal human right. Opponents call it a naked attempt to prolong the power of a decade-old government that has showered public money on migrants and young people.

With approval likely in a Congress controlled by the president's allies, the laws would expand Argentina's electorate by three million voters, or roughly 10 per cent, and make it among the world's most permissive countries in terms of voting rights, allowing foreigners with two years of permanent residency to cast ballots.

"It's very important — there are so many of us here in Buenos Aires," said thrilled migrant Karen Gonzalez, a 48-year-old nanny whose family now includes two grandchildren in her adopted city. "I've been here for more than 20 years and I love Argentina. I'm Paraguayan and I love my country, too, but I owe so much to Argentina, so I want to vote."

While welcoming immigrants into polling stations would add 1 million voters, lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 would add two million more.

Very few nations trust people still in their adolescence to help choose their nation's leaders. Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua also start voting at age 16.

When Mauro Eichmann looks around at his fellow 16-year-olds in his suburban Buenos Aires high school, he doesn't see anyone responsible enough to vote for president.

"I don't think we're old enough to decide who should run the country," said Eichmann, who turned 16 in March and is studying economics and business administration. "I know there are many good kids, but many others aren't prepared."

Another group of 16-year-olds, texting between classes downtown, agreed they didn't know enough yet to vote. After all, they said, teenagers in Argentina's capital can't even drive or buy alcohol until they turn 18.

Just one of them was willing to speak out against his peers and endorse the proposal to lower the voting age.

Voting "would motivate young people to participate in politics," Francisco Schkolnik told The Associated Press in a text message, adding that he'd vote for "Cristinismo."

That's just what this government is hoping for, but it remains to be seen whether the new voters could swing next year's congressional elections or the 2015 presidential vote in favor of Cristina Fernandez's picks for public office.

"This government has a well-established strategy of capturing new voters and new activists under the umbrella of a new way of doing politics," political analyst Graciela Romer observed. "But the elections are a long way off."

Even more controversial is the plan to allow noncitizens to vote, an idea still foreign to most of the world's democracies.

Very few nations give all noncitizens with permanent residency the right to vote in national elections. Chile allows it after five years; Uruguay after 15. Australia used to allow it, but now denies it for new immigrants. Other countries grant it only to certain nationalities, or people with significant wealth or property.

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