Uninformed, Apathetic or Impoverished, Most Guatemalan Youths Are Not Signed Up to Vote This Year

More than 70 percent of Guatemala’s young people lack the documentation needed to vote in the September general and regional elections. Young people ages 18 to 30 make up more than one-third of the population, so their vote is potentially decisive. Some are unaware of the identification and registration process; some can’t afford it; some just aren’t motivated.

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Uninformed, Apathetic or Impoverished, Most Guatemalan Youths Are Not Signed Up to Vote This Year

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

As part of the process of obtaining her Personal Identification Document, Odeth Elisa Gutierrez has her fingerprints digitally scanned. More than 70 percent of the young people in Sololá, Guatemala, lack the documentation needed to vote in the September election.

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PANAJACHEL, GUATEMALA – Splashes of water obscure the front of Odeth Elisa Gutierrez’s brown blouse. The 20-year-old laundrywoman interrupts her work in a home in San Lucas Tolimán, a municipality in Sololá department, Guatemala, and dries her hands before speaking.

Gutierrez is undocumented, she says.

Although she was registered at birth, she has never had an identification document, she says. Gutierrez does not know why she should get a Personal Identification Document, or how she would go about obtaining one.

This document is mandatory for Guatemalan citizens and residents. Every citizen must possess a PID in order to register to vote.

“I am not aware of what a Personal Identification Document is,” she says. “What I’ve been told is that supposedly it is something important that we should have, but I don’t know why, and the truth is that I have not gone to ask because I’m embarrassed.”

Gutierrez, who left school when she was 12 years old because her family lacked financial resources, says she can’t afford the 85 quetzales ($11) – nearly a week’s pay – that she would need for the document processing.

Gutierrez is among the majority of young people who cannot participate in Guatemala’s Sept. 6 general and regional elections because they are not registered.

I am not aware of what a Personal Identification Document is. What I’ve been told is that supposedly it is something important that we should have, but I don’t know why, and the truth is that I have not gone to ask because I’m embarrassed.

More than 70 percent of young Guatemalans lack the documentation needed to vote this year.

Although they make up more than a third of the population, many people in this age group – ages 18 to 30 – lack the money, knowledge or interest to register.

Guatemalans must obtain Personal Identification Documents when they turn 18. With that document, a citizen can register to vote.

As of April 30, more than 70 percent of young people had not yet registered, according to a report issued in May by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which registers voters.

To be eligible to vote in an election, one must register not later than three months in advance. That means the deadline to vote in the September election is June 6, says Huber Godinez, Departmental Delegate of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Sololá in a phone interview.

It takes 30 business days to obtain a Personal Identification Document, so any young person who does not yet have one will be unable to vote in September.

The National Registry of Persons does not know how many young people lack personal identification documents, Wendy Girón, a representative of the registry, says in a phone interview.

Guatemala is an exceptionally young country. While less than 17 percent of the world’s population is between the ages of 15 and 24, young people in that category make up 33 percent of the population of Guatemala, according the United Nations.

Pablo Ariel Herrera, who is running to represent Sololá department in the Congress of the Union, says young people could determine the outcome of the election.

“If all the youth of Guatemala would unite and vote, they are the ones who would elect their leaders,” he says. “Their participation is important, because it is they who are the political relays.”

Unfortunately, bureaucratic costs and lack of information will keep many young people from voting, he says. Others won’t vote because they lack interest.

Some young people say they refrain from obtaining documentation because of the high cost.

In Sololá, 74 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, which means monthly household income for a family of five is under 3,236 quetzales ($424), according to a 2011 U.N. Development Program report.

Sonia Liseth Morales Morales, an 18-year-old high school student, says her mother is going to ask her employer for money to help pay for her document processing. Her mother, the sole breadwinner in a family of six, earns 1,000 quetzales ($130) a month working at a restaurant.

Last year, Morales Morales worked while studying, but this year she is immersed in her studies. Having lost one income, the family has struggled, she says.

Document processing and registration are handled in different offices, and many young people don’t even know where those offices are, says José Aguilar Serrano, coordinator of the Attention, Mobilization and Advocacy for Children and Adolescents Program, a Sololá-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping young people understand their rights.

“This makes it so that the process is very bureaucratic, and young people do not really know what they need to do to obtain the document,” he says. “Young people come to have a variety of information that confuses them.”

The process became more challenging in August 2013, when the national government ceased to accept the vicinity card, a form of identification issued at no cost by municipalities, Aguilar Serrano says. Since then, Guatemalans have had to obtain Personal Identification Documents from the National Registry of Persons.

Sergio Ramírez, the municipal subdelegate of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Panajachel, where local residents register to vote, says families and schools – not the state – must educate young people about the process and help them obtain their documentation.

Vicente Cocom Mateo, 19, says he obtained his documentation with his older sister’s help. The process was complicated because, having been born in one of the country’s other 21 departments, he had to travel to pick up his documentation.

Pedro Simaj is proud of having helped eight of his 10 children obtain their documentation; the youngest two are not yet old enough for the process.

“The responsibility to get their documents is of the parents and the youth,” says Simaj, a juice seller who never completed primary school. “The school is a support, but everyone should meet the spiritual and earthly laws.”

Morales Morales says parents who are illiterate or uninformed do not recognize the importance of the process.

As of 2012, 18 percent of Sololá residents were illiterate, according to the National Statistics Institute; that’s a bit more than 1 percentage point higher than the national illiteracy rate.

Morales Morales’ mother accompanied her to obtain her documents. However, she says, she wishes her school had taught her how to handle the process so she wouldn’t have had to depend on her mother.

Nancy López, administrative director of the primary school Atitlan Multicultural Academy, says a mandatory yearlong class on citizenship education teaches children the national symbols and the structure of the state.

However, the course does not stress the importance of documentation, registration and voting, she admits.

Young people and their parents are responsible for obtaining their documents, López says.

Many young people fail to obtain their documentation and register to vote because they are apathetic, López says.

“We have seen that the youth do not care to elect their authorities from a lack of motivation towards the system,” she says.

Ricardo Adonias Velásquez Yojcom, 21, has a personal identification document, but he has no interest in voting.

“I still have not registered myself, because the same thing always happens in the end,” he says. “People no longer vote for awareness; rather, they vote for money or something in return. So that tells me there won’t be changes.”

Eswin Orlando Sian, a member of the Nationalist Change Union political party, encourages young people to participate in the democratic process.

It is important to get involved in politics and work toward positive change, Sian says.

“We want leaders who work for the people, and that there are changes in the communities,” he says.

The National Registry of Persons should facilitate first-time processing of the Personal Identification Document, and even provide its services for free, Aguilar Serrano says.

The state should always promote and facilitate issuance of this basic citizenship document, not just in election years, he says.

In 2014, the National Registry of Persons conducted a public awareness campaign through the Councils of Urban and Rural Development, neighborhood groups that assess the needs of the people and propose government policies.

The registry promoted registration through radio and television ads.

Those strategies have not had the expected success, says registrar Elmar Culan Buch.

This year, government employees have gone door to door encouraging people who lack documents to go through the process, he says.

“The goal this year is to document all the people in the municipality,” he says.

This effort will end in June.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal plans to provide teacher training on the importance of registration and voting, Ramírez says.

In mid-April, the Attention, Mobilization and Advocacy for Children and Adolescents Program started a campaign in Sololá informing young people how to obtain a Personal Identification Document and register to vote.

The television campaign, which will include lectures and debates, will run until mid-June, Aguilar Serrano says.

Sian also aims to raise young people’s awareness of the importance of documentation and voting.

“My advice to youth is that they can first get their Personal Identification Document, and later that they participate in the political parties and that they are leaders of change,” Sian says.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.