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Argentina wants foreigners, 16-year-olds to vote

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – 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 3 million voters, or roughly 10 percent, 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 2 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.

In the United States, Democrats and Republicans spend millions fighting over legal and bureaucratic hurdles that prevent even citizens from voting, and foreigners lacking permanent residency can be deported for simply donating to a campaign.

Only New Zealand grants noncitizens such rights more quickly, after just one year of legal permanent residency.

"New Zealand is the most expansive, but of course its number of resident aliens is quite small. Argentina would be far more significant," said political scientist David Earnest, an expert on international suffrage laws.

Argentina's plan drew more than 1,700 angry comments this week in the opposition newspaper La Nacion, many with a racist tinge, complaining that their European culture has been hijacked to serve a populist experiment.

"It's completely absurd that foreign nationals would have the power to define the destiny of the Argentines," Vicente Rojas wrote in his anti-government blog, Code Red. "We all know the real point of this would-be law, which will surely be presented as Latin Americanist, integrationist and even with poetic images, when in reality all it seeks is the continuity of this government."

Argentina counts more than 1,806,000 foreign-born people among its 40 million inhabitants, just 4.5 percent of the population, much less than in the early 1900s, when nearly one in three people in Argentina had just left Europe. The 2010 census showed 77 percent of current migrants came from neighboring countries – mostly Paraguay, followed by Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Brazil.

Most of the migrants live in and around the capital, in slums or working-class districts where the left wing of the ruling Peronist party has traditionally drawn its strongest support.

While many nations turn a cold shoulder to illegal immigrants, this government has made a priority of integrating them into Argentine society, expediting their documents and including them in a multibillion-dollar program of cash handouts for each poor child in school. The warm welcome has encouraged about 130,000 migrants to obtain permanent residency each year.

"Argentina has given me so many things: It gave me work, it took care of me, it gave me shelter," said Gonzalez, the nanny, who has long been frustrated that her Argentine husband can vote, but not her. "I would vote for this president. I think a lot of other Paraguayans would, too."

The measures' main sponsor is the president's former Cabinet chief, Sen. Anibal Fernandez, who says he aims to do nothing less than "break the link between citizenship and nationality."

"If you recognize that collective decisions will be applied to foreigners, logic indicates that their opinions should be considered," he wrote to his fellow senators.

Earnest, who teaches at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said the Argentine lawmaker has it right, that 20th-century concepts of citizenship are outmoded in a world where technology and a truly global economy have challenged political boundaries.

"In this era of globalization, the people's sense of belonging has become pluralized. People hold multiple affiliations," he said. "This practice of granting voting rights to noncitizens is really an indicator of a fundamental change in terms of what we think of citizenship."

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