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A Lesson in Election Fraud Plunges Professor in Hot Water

While the nation calls for a fair vote, Mexican officials peeved by challenge

FERNANDO BAZUA went out to prove a point about electoral fraud. Now, that point could land him behind bars.

Using fake documents, Mr. Bazua, a public policy professor at the capital's Metropolitan University, helped one of his students register to vote twice for the Aug. 21 presidential election, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

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The garrulous, mustachioed professor says he made the forgeries as part of an academic study to demonstrate how vulnerable Mexico's electoral system remains to vote tampering.

``Our goal wasn't to actually commit fraud, but to help devise solutions to prevent it,'' Bazua explains. ``Unfortunately, it's still very easy for anyone to get a false voter card.''

Although Bazua went public with the story just after his student received the fake registration cards and at the same time proposed reforms, election authorities charged him with committing voter fraud on June 20.

Two days after Bazua told his story to local newspapers, the Federal Electoral Institute, the agency charged with running the election, filed charges against the professor with the Attorney General's office. ``For whatever reason someone obtains a fake credential, that person has violated the law and will be treated accordingly,'' said Felipe Solis Acero, IFE's director of electoral organization.

Sensitive about bad publicity, electoral authorities were plainly irritated by Bazs ploy. Interior Minister Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, whose Cabinet position oversees IFE, called Bazs actions ``trash,'' while the Institute's director, Arturo Nunez, charged that Bazua, who has worked with the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, was trying to discredit what Mr. Nunez claims is a much improved electoral system.

Given the widespread distrust of the electoral process, Bazs case has sparked nationwide interest. For decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed Mexico since 1929, has been accused of stealing elections through its control of the electoral system. The government-controlled IFE has promised that the upcoming election will be clean, but many say that the PRI has simply switched tactics from crude ballot stuffing to more high-tech fraud.

Bazua decided to fake the registration after being invited to examine IFE's new computer, which officials assert will all but eliminate fraud. Bazua says he wasn't impressed by their voter-verification process.

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``What they told me wasn't very convincing,'' recalls the professor, while shuffling through a stack of papers about his case.

After hearing about his visit, Bazs public-policy class decided to attempt the fake registration. One student, Sandra Fabiola Martinez, submitted two sets of false documents at two voting stations. Five months later, she received both registration cards in the mail - one marked Monica Fernandez and the other Martha Patricia Gonzalez.

``Fake credentials are the most dangerous form of fraud, because they can't be seen by election observers on election day,'' Bazua says. ``The fraud takes place long beforehand and out of sight of anyone.''

The much-publicized feat has touched off another emotional debate over what may be the most important issue of this year's presidential campaign: Can Mexico hold a clean election?

IFE officials, insisting the election will be clean, cite evidence such as the introduction of the first computerized voter-registration cards, the presence of independent election observers, and numerous external audits of the national voter list.

``We have never denied that someone could obtain a fake credential, but we believe the system will catch most of them,'' IFE director, Mr. Solis says. ``Our voting list is based on good faith.'' But independent election observers fear that good faith is in short supply among IFE officials who have worked in the government or for the PRI.

To rid voter lists of multiple registrations, Bazua has proposed running a computer check on the fingerprints of all 45.7 million registered voters. Bazs proposal is titled the ``Informatic Hunting of Mapaches,'' the Spanish word for raccoon and a notorious expression for vote cheaters.

Two US computer-programming firms have already told Bazua they could scan the voter registration lists, which include the fingerprints, for a charge of $20,000 to $30,000. But government officials insist that before the election, a full-scale fingerprint check is not possible. Bazua disagrees. ``If the electoral commission were serious about catching duplicates, they would run a check,'' he says.

Talk of an outside check prompted government officials to accuse Bazua of planning the entire affair in order to earn a commission from whichever company might win the contract to run a check. Bazua called the accusation ``a ridiculous attempt to discredit me.''

But even a full-scale fingerprint check may not satisfy all critics of the electoral system. Thirty-seven percent of the electorate believes that the Aug. 21 election will be fraudulent, according to Market & Opinion Research International. Another 37 percent predicts the election will be clean.

``The IFE has an enormous responsibility to ensure a fair election,'' Bazua says. ``If the public senses the election was stolen, I fear that this time around, people will not accept whatever the government tells them.''

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