TIJUANA, Mexico – Thousands of Mexicans living in the United States traveled by plane, bus and car to Mexican border cities to vote in Sunday's hotly contested presidential election. For some, it was a futile journey.
The Mexican government set up 86 polling stations along the 2,000-mile border, mostly for migrants who missed out on Mexico's historic absentee ballot campaign.
But the special polls meant for people away from their registered homes had only 750 ballots each, apparently to prevent fraud. And hundreds of voters were turned away in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, after 18 special polling booths ran out of ballots four hours before polls closed.
"This shows how irresponsible electoral officials are," said Javier de Anda, a construction contractor from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey who was turned away after waiting in the blistering sun for two hours.
"If they know that many of us will be away from our voting districts, they shouldn't limit the number of ballots," he said.
The presidential election was the first since outgoing President Vicente Fox's stunning victory in 2000 ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Electoral officials said the race was too close to call Sunday and they would have to wait for the district-by-district vote count that starts Wednesday to declare a winner.
Felipe Calderon, 43, of Fox's National Action Party, had been running an exceedingly close race with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 52, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. Roberto Madrazo, 53, of PRI, had been trailing in third place.
Lawmakers approved a law last year to allow the estimated 11 million Mexicans living in the United States to vote by mail for the first time. But the effort was thrown together to beat electoral deadlines and officials said only about 32,632 valid absentee ballots from 71 countries were mailed to the Federal Electoral Institute. Of those, 28,335 were from the United States.
Across the border from San Diego in Tijuana, a sprawling city of more than 1 million people, out-of-town voters arrived Sunday by bus from Los Angeles and other California cities. Many said they made the trip because they received little information about how to request absentee ballots, lacked the correct voting card, or did not fill out their applications correctly.
Maria Salome Rodriguez, a 38-year-old farm worker, drove eight hours with her husband from Fresno, Calif., and waited for two hours to vote at a polling booth outside Tijuana's airport. She and her husband decided to make the trip to the border after their applications for absentee ballots were rejected because they wrote down the wrong address.
"We want to vote so Mexico can improve and offer jobs to people here, because even though we're far away, our heart is still with our homeland," said Rodriguez, who declined to name the candidate she voted for.
In addition to Tijuana's regular polling centers for residents, 20 special centers were set up across the city for migrants as well as active-duty soldiers, factory workers and others who have come to the area recently from the interior of the country.
Salome's husband, 49-year-old construction worker Pedro Hernandez, said he was voting for Calderon.
"I could be resting at home but voting for me is a moral responsibility," Hernandez said. "I'm happy to be part of this because we're living a new democracy, and — who knows? — maybe my vote can decide this election."