The Americas 61.2 (2004) 341-342
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Economic forces, demography, settlement patterns, ideology, and public policy have all influenced the gradual and complex gestation of Costa Rican democracy, but the process remains poorly understood. Lehoucq and Molina's careful study of electoral fraud and the political struggles over electoral law and institutions during the first half of the twentieth century sheds valuable new light on Costa Rica's essential democratic institutions. In 1900 Costa Rica enfranchised nearly all adult males, but voting was a public not private act; presidential and some legislative elections were indirect, administered by local authorities and often fraudulently manipulated. By 1946 reforms had instituted direct elections administered by a national electoral authority and a secret ballot, yet electoral fraud persisted. Such extensive changes paradoxically established the legal and institutional bases for today's effective, highly regarded Costa Rican electoral system, but also shaped the 1948 opposition election fraud that contributed to the 1949 civil war. Readers will be rewarded by an explanation of this paradox, and an enriched understanding of electoral institutional development in Latin America's oldest and most successful democracy.
A review of the surprisingly scant literature on electoral fraud helps set the book's goals: to improve theorizing about electoral fraud, and to add a useful case study to the field. A theoretical discussion posits office-seeking, sociological, and institutionalist theories to explaining fraud and reform. Lehoucq and Molina offer these not as contending explanations to be tested in the Costa Rican reform process, but as complimentary theories with each accounting for some reforms but none for all. Data for the study come from 123 petitions to the Congress (empowered to investigate and rectify electoral fraud) between 1901 and 1946 concerning 1,131 specific complaints of election irregularities, supplemented by 235 complaints sent to Congress by provincial election councils. Fraud is defined as actions that might "alter the result of the ballot box" (p. 17). Graded for levels of severity (from minor procedural irregularities to fraudulent counts and coercion of voters), the 1,366 incidents over 45 years allow further classification by location (central provinces versus peripheral ones). Additional enriching information comes from legislative records, the press, and writings of politicians involved. Analysis is organized temporally, with chapters addressing six periods and the electoral system, fraud, and the proposed and successful reforms for each.
The book succeeds as a detailed, data-driven history of electoral fraud and the slow progress toward building a well-structured electoral democracy. Lehoucq and Molina explain in detail the institutional situation in each era of fraud and attempted reform. They describe the frequency, severity, and geographical evolution of fraud and for the success or failure of reform. Explanations of why and when reforms occurred range from the venal to the nearly accidental to the heroic. If possible given his renown, several-time president Ricardo Jiménez gains even greater stature [End Page 341] as an advocate of electoral reform resisted by his own party. Between 1901 and 1946 fraud evolves from less severe to more severe and from predominantly a peripheral-province phenomenon to a central-province one. Ironically the success of early reforms, especially direct elections and the secret ballot, contributed to higher stakes and less local vote control for parties and thus intensified and centralized election fraud by the 1940s.
The book summarizes its well-established points so well at chapter end and again in the conclusion that it becomes somewhat repetitive. The authors err, I believe, in evaluating fraud's intensity by dividing the number of fraud reports by the size of the electorate, rather than using a better denominator like the number of relevant electoral subdivisions. More extensive reference to contemporary social movements and pressures might have presented a better-rounded history. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise masterful study of electoral development. Anyone interested...