updated 6/28/2005 4:02:22 PM ET 2005-06-28T20:02:22

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Tuesday a law allowing millions of Mexicans living abroad to vote by mail in next year's presidential election — a measure that could reshape the country's leadership race.

To chants of "Viva Mexico," the lower house of Congress passed an absentee voting proposal by a margin of 455 to 6 with 6 abstentions. The bill was already approved by Mexico's Senate and now only needs to be signed by President Vicente Fox to become law — something he has promised to do.

As their colleagues cast votes on the electronic board, dozens of visiting migrants waved flags and sang the Mexican national anthem.

"Today is historic," said Maria Sara Rocha of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. "It's a triumph."

An estimated 11 million Mexicans, as much as 14 percent of the country's electorate, live overseas, most in the United States. Expatriates are legally allowed to vote and hold dual citizenship but have been effectively barred from participating in elections because of the lack of an absentee ballot system.

When Fox ended 71 years of rule by the PRI during elections in 2000, thousands of Mexicans crossed from the United States into their homeland to seek special voting booths set up along the border — many of which soon ran out of ballots.

It was not clear which parties might benefit from the migrant voting.

PRI, which controls the largest bloc of seats in Congress, had long been rumored to fear that migrants would vote against it because they were forced to leave the country for lack of work during its rule. It is the only party so far to have elected a migrant to Congress, however.

The support came despite fears expressed by members of all major political parties that the country's notoriously slow and corrupt postal service will handle mailing out ballots.

"Voting by mail has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is the consensus that has been agreed upon," said Juan Jose Garcia of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

New system in place for next year’s election
The bill was passed with little time to spare. An absentee ballot system must be approved by the end of the month to take effect in time for the July 2, 2006, presidential election.

"An election that excludes millions of Mexicans is an election that doesn't count," said Gustavo Santiago, a proponent of migrant voting rights who first immigrated from the southern state of Oaxaca to Los Angeles in 1973. "It means a democracy for the country that is incomplete. A president chosen only partially."

Santiago said the mail-in ballot system was not ideal because of logistical challenges, but added that "it's a starting point, a positive step."

Those who voted against the measure complained that the voting-by-mail was unworkable.

"We accept programs that humiliate them (migrants), hurt them, cut them," complained Eliana Garcia of Democratic Revolution. "We even accept programs that cause them to die. And the only thing we're offering today is an undignified vote by mail."

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