Explaining Voting Turnout in Latin America

By Nestor Castaneda-Angarita, University of Southampton @nccastaneda and Miguel Carreras, University of California – Riverside – @carreras_miguel

After thirty years of uninterrupted democratic rule in most Latin American countries, we still know very little about the factors that affect individuals’ propensity to vote. Democratic theorists have repeatedly argued that political participation has a positive influence on citizens because it leads to enlightened choices in the political arena and increased civic-mindedness. Politically active persons are likely to be more developed — intellectually, practically, and morally — than politically passive. Previous studies have demonstrated that a series of institutional and contextual factors have a positive impact on turnout (Fornos, Power, Garand, 2004; Pérez-Liñán, 2001). Those studies argue that electoral participation increases when registration procedures are efficient, when voting is compulsory and sanctions for abstaining are enforced, and when legislative and presidential elections are held concurrently. Conventional wisdom also holds that socioeconomic factors are not related with turnout in the region. The studies of turnout at the subnational level have found inconsistent evidence for the impact of variables such as literacy, wealth, and population age on electoral participation. These null and inconsistent findings may be related to the ecological problems that result from analyzing aggregate levels of turnout.

In a recently published paper (Who Votes in Latin America? A Test of Three Theoretical Perspectives, Comparative Political Studies, July 2014, Volume 47, No. 8, pp.1079-1104), we re-assess the link between socio-demographic characteristics and turnout at the individual level with recent survey data from the Americas Barometer 2010 for 30,075 respondents in 17 Latin American countries. We found out that the strongest predictors of voter turnout in all of our models are two individual resources (education and age — proxy for political experience). Our analysis reveals that these objective characteristics of the voters explain much more than their subjective motivations (trust in elections, political efficacy, and interest in politics) and their insertion in mobilization networks.

The importance of voter’s resources to explain turnout in Latin America contrasts with the little influence that variables such as income or education have on electoral participation in developed countries. Particularly, education is a very poor predictor of electoral participation in many industrialized countries.

Why are citizens with a low socio-economic status (i.e. destitute and poorly educated individuals) less likely to go to the polls in Latin America but not in most industrialized countries? We believe there are three main reasons that explain this pattern.

First, the gap between those that have a low level of education and those that have a high level of education is more remarkable in Latin America than in most industrialized countries. Since most citizens in developed countries crossed this minimum threshold of instruction (the vast majority of citizens at least completed primary school), it makes sense that the effect of education on electoral participation is less remarkable.

Second, the size of the informal sector in the economy is much bigger in Latin American countries than in developed countries. Unskilled individuals in Latin America are much more likely to work in the informal economy than their counterparts in industrialized countries. People working in the informal sector are less likely to be immersed in active social networks. As our own analysis reveals, citizens with low social capital are less likely to participate in the elections. Hence, the likelihood that poor and uneducated individuals will turn out is lower in Latin American countries than in the developed countries.

Finally, the literature suggests that voters’ resources will matter less when leftist parties or labor movements are able to mobilize lower status individuals. Latin American countries have lacked precisely the type of labor parties that were created in Europe in the twentieth century to mobilize the working-class electorate. Latin American party systems have traditionally been dominated by “parties of a multi-class appeal and ideological pragmatism.” These catch-all parties do not develop programmatic linkages with voters along existing lines of societal cleavages, and are less effective at mobilizing individuals with low socio-economic status. Moreover, the neoliberal turn in the 1990s has considerably weakened labor movements in the region, thereby eroding a potential mobilization arena that could encourage disadvantaged social groups to go to the polls. In sum, a series of structural factors help explain the divergent impact of voters’ resources on electoral participation across different regions.

The conventional wisdom regarding turnout in Latin America is that institutions matter much more than socio-economic factors. We demonstrate that the strongest predictors of turnout in the region (education, age, employment status) are all socio-economic variables. Income also matters but its impact is not linear. Our analysis reveals that individuals in situation of extreme poverty are less likely to vote than the rest of the population.