restricted access Political Competition and Electoral Fraud: A Latin American Case Study
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Political Competition and Electoral Fraud:
A Latin American Case Study *

For an activity that was (or is) so central to the practice of politics in so many countries, electoral fraud remains poorly understood. Why and how politicians and parties violated (or violate) laws to falsify electoral outcomes constitute a set of topics the importance of which few would deny. Understanding how they illegally increased their vote totals or decreased those of their adversaries is not only essential to the history of many democratic systems, but an ongoing activity in many others. The study of electoral fraud is an ideal way to shed light on whether political behavior is shaped more by sociological factors or by institutional arrangements, especially where and when survey data is not available.

This study aims to begin filling this void by drawing upon a rich documentary source—the petitions to nullify electoral results (demandas de nulidad)—from Costa Rica, a country noted for its long history of democratic government. The petitions contain a wealth of material about the frequency, nature, and geographical basis of accusations of electoral fraud. They were generally lodged by those with legal training and typically published by the daily government gazette (La Gaceta). They were one of the weapons most frequently used by the opposition to combat the prerogatives largely held by presidents until the mid-twentieth century, namely, the production of the electoral registry, the holding of elections, and the tally of the vote. They are valuable precisely because of their partisan origins: By virtue of what they say and [End Page 199] do not say, they trace the frontier delimiting acceptable from unacceptable behavior.

Not surprisingly, some social scientists have been aware of the newspaper or archival evidence of electoral fraud. Virtually all of them, however, have shied away from using this information to make sense of politicians, parties, and their strategies. Indeed, some claim that electoral fraud cannot be studied because, as an illegal activity, its footprints are too faint or jumbled to decipher. Yet, as we show, it is possible to extract several quantitative indices from the petitions to get a sense of who was accused of violating electoral laws, as well as how, where, and with what success the tampering occurred. Showing how the petitions can be used to shed light on political behavior is one of this article’s key objectives.

Another important goal is to determine whether this mundane, even “low,” form of politics was shaped by institutional change. Even if the classification of the petitions to nullify electoral results yields systematic patterns, it is not at all clear whether such patterns are a product of legal changes wrought by presidents and legislatures in a national capital. They could be the result of decisions made by dominant classes to maintain their grip over political systems and thereby ensure their economic and social hegemony. Indeed, a bias of much research on Latin American history, society, and even politics is that laws and institutions are superfluous to understanding the behavior of politicians, parties, and interest groups. This theoretical prejudice is particularly evident in research on Central American political systems, which are typically regarded as dominated by the military and serving the interests of reactionary landlords and capitalists. Although there is an element of truth to this portrait, it neglects to mention other relevant facts—that few Latin American countries completely abandoned republican institutions for long and that politicians and parties spent a lot of time and energy in mobilizing voters. To shed light on the accuracy of this portrait, we assess the relative roles played by social structure and institutional incentives in determining the nature, frequency, and magnitude of electoral fraud. 1 [End Page 200]

Costa Rica is an ideal place to investigate the impact of electoral reform on political activity. As in Chile, Britain, Sweden, and Uruguay, politicians in nineteenth-century Costa Rica gradually transformed a competitive but fraud-ridden republic into a modern democracy. Since 1949, the country has held regularly scheduled, fair elections, in which every adult is entitled to vote. Competitive party politics began in 1889, when the incumbent liberals, under pressure of a...