Tackling Emerging Global Challenges in Mexico’s 2018 Elections: Cybersecurity, Disillusionment and Disinformation

On December 12, 2017, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) held a Capitol Hill roundtable on "Tackling Emerging Global Challenges in Mexico’s 2018 Elections: Cybersecurity, Disillusionment and Disinformation." The event featured remarks by Congresswoman Norma J. Torres (CA-35) and IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney, as well as a panel discussion with Hon. Justice José Luis Vargas Valdez of the Superior Chamber of the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judicial Branch (TEPJF) of Mexico; Katherine Ellena, senior legal specialist at IFES; and Thomas Flores, associate professor of Conflict Resolution and Political Science at George Mason University.

Rep. Torres opened the event by highlighting the importance of Mexico’s July 2018 elections, particularly given the number of local, regional and national seats being contested, and the likelihood of interference from outside actors. The elections will result in the largest turnover of elected officials in Mexico’s modern history, due to legal reforms that have ushered in concurrent elections for more than 3,000 elected positions.

Justice Vargas began by outlining the institutional structure of the TEPJF, a permanent judicial body dedicated to the resolution of electoral cases. The TEPJF consists of 32 state-level tribunals, five regional tribunals and the Superior Court, which shares constitutional authority on par with the Mexican Supreme Court. Given the unprecedented nature of the July 2018 elections, Justice Vargas shared the unique challenges the TEPJF will face in 2018. He predicts that the Tribunal will hear up to 50,000 cases in 2018. In comparison, the tribunal heard 16,000 cases in 2017. Given the time-sensitive nature of election cases, the TEPJF has only 15 days to rule on cases, requiring rigorous effort to ensure a process that is both efficient and fair.

The sustained increase in the number of cases coming before the TEPJF demonstrates that political parties and candidates in Mexico have accepted the practice of addressing grievances through judicial institutions. However, political actors are also increasingly seeking preferable outcomes through the courts if the results of the ballot box are not to their satisfaction. Justice Vargas observed that if candidates don’t win on Election Day, they have an incentive to try and win through the Tribunal.

The influence of social media on electoral outcomes was also addressed by Justice Vargas. Mexico, like most countries, does not have legislation regulating social media and elections. He anticipates that an increasing number of cases of this nature will come before the Tribunal, potentially generating jurisprudence that responds to this gap in the law. This puts the Tribunal in a potentially delicate position as it is called upon to balance issues of electoral integrity with freedom of expression and freedom of commerce, while also remaining within its constitutional mandate.

Building on Justice Vargas’ comments, IFES’ Katherine Ellena outlined challenges faced by judiciaries globally in the resolution of election disputes. Political actors are constantly finding new ways to manipulate systems, she noted, and these “innovators” are often more agile and adaptive than democratic institutions. Governance, in this way, is becoming a new field of warfare, with international actors sowing disinformation in support of a favored candidate or simply to destabilize democratic institutions. As concerns about election technology and cybersecurity grow, countries are reverting to trusted processes and strengthening the manual processes that are more resistant to manipulation and enjoy a larger degree of public trust and public understanding.

These challenges within the electoral adjudication landscape are also evident in threats being made against judgers and arbiters, as Ellena highlighted with examples from Mexico, Kenya, and Liberia. The legal system itself is also subject to manipulation with examples in Burma, Cambodia and Kenya illustrating this worrying trend. As election dispute resolution becomes an increasingly visible and contentious tool for challenging election results, candidates and parties in multiple countries are employing a tactic of eroding public trust in the electoral process by insinuating fraud ahead of elections, with Afghanistan and Indonesia being notable examples.

Professor Flores concluded the event by reminding the audience that Mexico is a bulwark of democracy, and the only country in Latin America that has had regular, competitive elections for 100 years. Since 1988, the world has held “more and better elections,” with more countries holding more regular and competitive elections than ever. However, the disillusionment of Mexican voters is a real challenge, even without outside influence. In 2015, Mexican voters had the lowest satisfaction with democracy in all of Latin America and less than half of citizens in the region expressed a belief that democracy is the best form of government.

During Justice Vargas’ visit to Washington, IFES and the TEPJF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at IFES Headquarters, further enhancing both organizations commitment to the advancement of electoral justice and electoral integrity. For additional questions about this event or about IFES’ work on electoral dispute resolution, contact IFES Senior Legal Specialist Katherine Ellena at kellena@ifes.org.