AJIJIC, Mexico (Reuters) - In a cobblestone Mexican town a world away from Washington, election fever is tearing American retirees away from quilt-making and bridge games as they scramble to mail home presidential ballots.
Thousands of retired U.S. citizens who live year-round in Mexico, and the “snow birds” who come south for the winter, have formed cozy communities in out-of-the-way places like Ajijic, set on a misty lake ringed by lush green hills near the western city of Guadalajara.
Fascinated by the frenzied debate playing out back home over who could best lead their country out of the worst financial crisis in decades and the war in Iraq, even the most apathetic are lining up to mail in absentee ballots.
“I’ve never voted before in my life, but I feel very strongly now that I have to. Everyone used to look up to the United States, but our image is badly degraded,” said painter Sherie Sourelis, 64, clutching her completed ballot.
“We’ve never seen such a dramatic election. It’s thrilling,” said expat voter Day Dobbert, 76.
Overseas voters realized their weight after mail-in votes helped decide the disputed Florida state result and the national election in 2000.
Many see the fierce battle between Democrat Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain firing up more expats to vote than ever. Nineteen days before the November 4 election, Obama, who leads in opinion polls and in many battleground states, warned Democrats on Thursday in New York to guard against overconfidence.
“Everybody I’ve talked to plans on voting,” said Republican backer Dan Williams, Commander of the American Legion chapter for villages dotted around the violet-hued Lake Chapala.
“It looks like a big expat turnout,” said Williams, wearing an apron decorated with Mexican skulls over his U.S. polo shirt as he helped cook a Thanksgiving lunch for Canadian snowbirds.
It is unclear how many Americans live in Mexico, but estimates range from 500,000 to 3 million.
Miami University political scientist Sheila Croucher, who studies expatriate towns like Ajijic, said postal votes from Mexico jumped in the 2004 election and will likely rise again as the financial crisis also spurs on many to vote at the last minute.
“The 2000 election was a perfect indicator of how important the expat vote can be. Had Florida not counted late overseas ballots, Al Gore would have been president,” Croucher said.
In a leafy garden cafe in Ajijic, gossiping and arguing about politics is breaking the laid-back routine of expatriate life more typically occupied by poetry readings, charity events, baking contests and “Overeaters Anonymous” meetings.
Two visiting U.S. tourists said they were almost mobbed by Democrats who wanted the Obama T-shirts they were wearing, while a man claiming to have taught at Obama’s school in Hawaii whispered that he had more faith in McCain.
“The kind of people who move down here have a keen interest in life back home. Their minds aren’t atrophied. They’re a bunch of live wires actually,” said 85-year-old former fighter pilot John Wester, who was casting a ballot for Obama.
Democrat and Republican groups have campaigned across Mexico, from the capital to beach resorts, and gathered ballots, which U.S. consulates have bundled together for mailing.
“Voting from abroad is a lot of paperwork,” said Tim Harlin, a tattooed former biker puffing on a cigar. “But I have to do it, my children live up there.”