Diego Morales was, in his own words, “born in Guatemala, made in America.” This weekend the Indiana secretary of state is in his native country leading a team of county clerks as official electoral observers from across his home state.
One of the peculiar contrasts he has noticed is the way voter ID—the requirement to present identification at the ballot—is taken for granted as normal in Guatemala, a country with a vast informal economy. Meanwhile, he scratches his head at why it is controversial and a political football across the United States.
Morales has taken a stand for voter ID as a prominent elected official, the first legal Latino legal immigrant to hold a secretary of state position in the US states. The matter is particularly pertinent because he oversees electoral matters within Indiana, including presidential elections: “I am the chief election officer in America, in Indiana … My job is to make sure that we can have free and fair elections and that only Hoosiers can go and get out there to vote.”
Morales and I sat down in the heart of Guatemala City on the eve of the nation’s elections, which will take place on June 25. He shared his motives for coming to Guatemala on this occasion, and you can listen to the full interview (13 minutes) below.
The Indiana delegation is bipartisan and approved by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). There might be the perception that the Americans are here to teach Guatemalans how to run elections. However, Morales sees the Hoosier presence as part of a dialogue, a way for his group and Guatemalan officials to learn and share best practices:
“We [the delegation] are international election observers for Sunday. We are allowed to go to all the polling locations or urnas, as people say here.… We are not here to interfere in anything. We are here only to oversee. We are going to let the Guatemalan people choose their next leader.”
In fact, Morales says there are advantages to the way Guatemalans run their elections. In addition to stricter identification requirements—at least relative to some US states—he mentions Guatemala’s single day of voting and paper ballots as simple ways to facilitate scrutiny.
Within Indiana, he has sought to go beyond words and has sponsored legislation to strengthen voter ID in the state: “One of my goals is to increase voter turnout. I want every eligible—that’s the magic word, the key word—Hoosier in my state, or eligible Americans, to register to vote and then drive into the polls and vote.… I am proud to say that this year … in the Indiana General Assembly I passed my first bill—which is House Bill 1334—which is the expansion of photo ID.”
It provides for three identification options for absentee voting. When pushback came, he said “This is common sense, and we are going to do it, and we are going to stand up for the right thing, for the rule of law, for the American Constitution.”
When pushed on whether international electoral observers have ideological agendas, Morales wanted to underline that all his funding came from private sources, as opposed to taxpayer funds. That does not apply to organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), which is prominent here this weekend and runs on taxpayer funds from the member countries.
However, Morales cannot speak for other individuals present and resisted saying whether their proclivities run counter to Guatemalan voter preferences: “I can only speak [for] my delegation and what we are doing here. What I can tell you is that I am providing the opportunity for my county clerks in Indiana to come and experience and see a presidential election … I want them to see when Guatemalans go to the polls they show their ID. I am a huge believer in voter-ID laws.”
Morales describes the United States, specifically Indiana, as the promised land for him and his family. Over about a decade, he was able to come as a legal immigrant, serve in the US military, and finally be a naturalized US citizen. Now he gladly shows his documentation with pride: “All I am asking for here is transparency.” He also hopes Indiana can be “the leader when it comes to elections in America,” and he points to Kentucky as one state that has followed Indiana’s example.
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