Making Sense of Suffrage Expansion and Electoral Institutions in Latin America: A Comment on Colomer’s “Tiger”

Valenzuela, J Samuel

In his article “Taming the Tiger: Voting Rights and Political Instability in Latin America,” Josep Colomer proposes to go beyond the “single-country stories . . . typical . . . of the existing historiography” on Latin American elections and politics and to develop instead “an explicitly comparative, theory-driven analysis, which is more characteristic of the social sciences literature.” I am all for such comparative analysis, although I would guard myself from belittling the achievements of historians who have examined national experiences in painstaking detail or the merit of a highly analytical comparative history such as that presented in Eduardo Posada-Carbo’s recent work (2000). But theory-driven comparative analysis is difficult to do well. One has to know the historical experiences one is comparing very thoroughly, and one has to know how to develop the concepts that will build the theoretical argument in a dialogue with the evidence. The result should be to provide a better understanding of the evidence in ways that even those who know the histories well will find both useful and illuminating.

I am afraid that Colomer’s paper falls a good deal short of this mark. It is not clear that he has the necessary in-depth grasp of the historical material, or that the model he presents has much of anything to do with the cases he analyzes, except in a most superficial, albeit highly questionable way. I must point out that I was one of the readers of this paper, and that I am pleased that Colomer has included in his bibliography a good number of the historical references that I suggested. While there is some improvement in the text that is now published over its previous versions, I am still left wondering whether he has actually read and absorbed the material that he is now including in his bibliography. As a result, the theoretical analysis in Colomer’s paper, or what he refers to as his “model,” has an abstract flatness to it, one that hardly begins to capture the complexities of the political-electoral experiences of the Latin American countries he discusses. I will begin with a discussion of the model, and then refer to the historical descriptions of Argentina and Chile-omitting any reference the other cases for the sake of brevity.


The basic premise in Colomer’s approach is drawn not from Latin American histories but from European experiences. It consists of the wellknown contrast between countries, typically England, that expanded suffrage gradually and those-again typically, France-that did so abruptly. The first form is associated with political stability in the construction of mass democracies, while the second is related to regime instability and retrogression in voting rights. The reason for this difference supposedly has to do with the threat or perceived threat to dominant groups posed by suffrage expansion to the subordinate classes. If it occurs gradually, such groups fear it less. Not only are the numbers of new voters weak in the initial stages, but also the new political leaderships that emerge from the ongoing enfranchisement of successively lower strata or classes are socialized fully into the ways of democracy before the numbers of votes they command allow them to become a significant force in national politics. By contrast, a big bang sort of suffrage expansion threatens the political establishment, producing the emergence of inexperienced and radical leaders more at home on the barricades and with the language of revolution than with the ways of constitutional democracies. This thesis owes much to the work of Stein Rokkan (1970) and the sharp analytical distinctions of Robert Dahl (1971, esp. chap. 3). Other European countries are deemed to fit more or less into the British or the French pattern (for example, Sweden with Britain and Germany with France), but none in Europe seemingly contradict this major distinction.

Colomer’s model draws from this well-established notion. It then tries to exemplify the level of threat to a dominant class (presented as a landowning one) that is posed by suffrage expansion. To this end, the paper lays out on a straight line the distance between that first group and subsequent voters or groups of voters who represent ever lower classes. Urban working classes and miners are always viewed as the most dangerous groups in these conceptions, and Colomer’s is no exception. Peasants are somehow not a threat, nor are women, and hence, as the author shows, they appear in closer proximity to the first group when he introduces them. Their enfranchisement reduces the threat because such voters supposedly provide support for more centrist leaderships. In Latin America, Colomer associates Brazilian and Chilean longtime political stability to “restricted” electorates or controlled expansions of suffrage, although when the numbers of voters increase, these countries have military coups (in 1964 and 1973, respectively). The other countries he mentions, namely Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, all had abrupt suffrage expansions and therefore political instability. So what’s wrong with Colomer’s model and its application?


First, there is a curious disconnection between the model-presented in a highly formalized way, relying on assumed distances between voters or groups of voters, which are represented geometrically on a straight line-and the cases it is supposed to explain. The historical descriptions do not make any use of the model’s disquisitions regarding threat levels of different magnitudes given the “win-sets” produced by the extent of enfranchisements. Class is the significant operative variable to produce the supposed threat levels, but there is no attempt to discuss the class composition of the electorates in the paper. The only notion that does appear in the discussion is the distinction between gradual or abrupt processes of enfranchisement. There is no need for the formal modeling in figure 1 if all its terms are then not used in the historical assessments.

Second, the model is itself quite simplistic and imprecise. It refers with its capital letters variously to individual voters or to groups of voters who make “coalitions,” without any mention of the reality that coalitions are normally made by parties and political leaders. In other words, the model does not discuss the “offer” side of electoral processes; namely, the kinds of candidates that emerge. An expansion of suffrage is not particularly threatening to dominant or powerful groups and government authorities if most voters only really choose between candidates that the former find acceptable. Similarly, the model does not contain a proper discussion of electoral regimes or systems (the rules that govern the numbers of candidates per district, the way the districts are drawn, and how votes turn into seats) except to mention that winners must obtain “absolute majorities,” “simple majorities,” or “pluralities.” (This left me wondering what the difference between the latter two is).

Electoral systems, as is well known, do have a significant effect on the types of coalitions that emerge, and any attempt to model such coalitions should consider the consequences of the electoral regimes that actually existed in the countries to which the analysis is supposed to apply. In the Chilean case between 1874 and 1925, this would mean examining the effects of the cumulative voting system, and proportional representation with d’Hondt divisors after that. The first of these systems did allow for the election of minority candidates by permitting voters to concentrate all their votes on as little as one candidate in plurinominal districts. Table 1, which summarizes some of the features of the selected countries’ electoral laws and the size of their electorates, contains no remarks about how votes were converted into seats.

Third, it is quite surprising to read “that broad voting rights can be compatible with some high degree of political stability if the regime is organized with inclusive electoral institutions, such as proportional representation and absolute majority rule, able to produce encompassing winners with relatively large electoral and social support.” Proportional representation has very different effects from absolute majority systems, as it usually does not produce single winners with large bases of support. Hence, it is difficult to see how the two systems can be put together in this manner. Be this as it may, the United States has neither proportional representation nor an absolute majority rule in its electoral system, and despite its broad electorate from early on (while short of full enfranchisement in the South until the voting rights act of the mid-1960s), it has enjoyed political stability, with the exception of the Civil War. Moreover, it is hard to accept a phrase such as “if the outcome of each single election is highly unpredictable, the series of outcomes at successive elections will likely create high political instability.” But most democracies at various points in time (think again of the U.S. presidential contests) have unpredictable outcomes in their elections, and yet this does not necessarily generate instability.

Fourth, the Colomer model presents the problem of suffrage extension merely in terms of class while plotting the distances between “voters” or “groups of voters.” Again, this is simpleminded. Latin American populations were divided politically, depending on the country, in a series of other dimensions as well. The expansion of suffrage could be seen by some upper-class groups as an advantage for reasons, such as regional allegiances or religious identities, that had nothing to do with class. Groups of highly practicing Catholics of different classes could feel greater commonality with each other against a secularizing adversary than with members of their respective classes across the secular-religious divide. It is not true, moreover, that women (or peasants, for that matter) are necessarily closer to the status quo than male workers. If the “status quo” was held by anticlerical forces, women were, with good reason, a major threat to their electoral supremacy where they had it. Indeed, this difference had a lot to do with the lateness of women’s suffrage, at least in Chile (Maza Valenzuela 1995, 2000).

Fifth, and perhaps most important, the Colomer model simply does not reflect fundamental features of the suffrage expansion process in Latin America. In Europe, abrupt expansions of the suffrage to all men during the nineteenth century were the exception rather than the rule. In the Americas, including the United States, it was the other way around. Citing the historical literature, Colomer himself notes in his descriptive section that suffrage tended to be very broad in the early decades after independence. Similarly to the United States (see Keyssar 2000), various Latin American countries subsequently imposed some restrictions on the right to vote. The problem is that if there had been a broad suffrage from the very inception of the republics, then the issue of the possible “threat” of suffrage expansion surely could not have come up, as the expanded electorate would already have been a given. Moreover, in those settings where restrictions were added later, it is not at all clear, as the Chilean experience illustrates, that this had the effect of eliminating artisans or workers from the electorates. I will elaborate on this point in connection with the Argentine and Chilean cases.


I doubt very much that any historian would accept the notion that having a broad suffrage in 1826 was the single cause leading to the Rosas dictatorship, as Colomer seems to assume. It is very likely that this would have happened anyway, regardless of the suffrage provisions. It is, moreover, disingenuous to assert that the 1853 Constitution “drastically reduced” the enfranchised population “by requiring citizenship,” and then to link this reduction to political stability. Immigration did not begin in large numbers until later, and it took ten more years after 1853 for the country to unify and reach a modicum (still interrupted by insurrections) of stability.

No one really knows how many people voted in Argentina as a whole in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The figures that exist for Buenos Aires (as presented by Alonso 1996, 186-87) show clearly that electoral participation was well on the rise before the Saenz Pena law of 1912. This law did not expand suffrage rights, as Argentina always kept universal male suffrage for its nationals. And the proportions of voters from different classes remained more or less the same (including workers) before and after 1912 (see Alonso 1996, 195, 199, who cites Richard Walter on this point). Hence, any implication that the Saenz Pena law increased the “threat” level is nonsensical. But the numbers of voters did increase (about doubling in Buenos Aires), given that it made voting compulsory (Malamud, 2000, 103). The Radical Yrigoyen won the next presidential election of 1916 not really because of the expanding numbers of voters, but because the conservatives split into warring camps. Again, it is not clear that the expanded suffrage rights had much to do with the military coup of 1930. It was the third (not the second, as Colomer states) presidential election that Yrigoyen won, and it is not clear that elections during his presidencies were all that clean and fair. The president was old, his party was divided, and the coup took place after the stock market crash of 1929 clouded the economic horizons. In any event, it took place 14 years after the numbers of voters had expanded, and this is hardly evidence that such expansion was an important reason for the coup.

Finally, the expansion of suffrage under Peron occurred as women entered the electoral rolls. Such expansion was, however, probably not the cause of Peron’s success; in other words, had the electorate remained composed only of men, Peron would still have won large majorities. Yet again, it is not credible to associate the coup of 1955 with the expansion of the electorate, given the entry of women.


The treatment of the Chilean case contains numerous errors. For one, it is very surprising to read in table 1 that Chile had an “open ballot” from 1833 to 1964. So much for the historical accuracy of Colomer’s table, and for the care with which he has read the sources he himself cites, including my 2000 article on the 1890 electoral law. As I explain in it, Chilean elections were never “open” in the sense that voters had to voice their preferences vocally. They always entailed voters’ putting folded paper ballots into electoral urns. The 1890 law explicitly and relentlessly modified the choreography of the voting process in order to secure the secrecy of the vote. It introduced the secret chamber, where voters were supposed to put their preferred ballot into an officially sealed envelope given to them at the voting premises by electoral officials (Valenzuela 2000). In a word, the 1890 law created the same secret voting procedures that the Saenz Pena law adopted later in Argentina, and which were adopted in France also in 1912.

I therefore cannot understand why Colomer, even after supposedly reading my paper, insists on saying that Chile did not have a secret vote until 1964. Moreover, considering that Argentina, unlike Chile, did not have an electoral registry with voters’ signatures at each polling place and that voters were therefore not asked to sign a voting table list in order to compare that signature with the original registry, Argentine voters were required to sign, after they had closed them, the envelopes in which they were supposed to put their ballots (see on this point Malamud 1997, 202). Surely this procedure made the Argentine voting choreography less secret than the Chilean one! (Colomer notes that voters had to sign the envelopes in the final version of his paper, given my observation to that effect in the review phase.)

Literacy was demanded of Chilean voters from the beginning, but individuals who had fought in the wars of independence were exempted from this requirement for life. Hence, literacy was not “added in 1842” as Colomer indicates. The Chilean left, including the very first set of labor movement leaders, never pressed for an abolition of the literacy requirement. Hence, they did not see this limitation as one that affected their voting potential. On the contrary, they saw the literacy provision as an advantage, because they relied on their newspapers (which they published profusely) as the central means of spreading their message, and they doubted that illiterates would vote for leftist candidates.

The early labor movement set up numerous mutual aid societies and cultural academies in which, among other things, they conducted adult literacy classes. Given this effort and given the expansion of schooling, by 1932 fully 73 percent of all males over 21 years of age (and 71 percent of all women) were literate (Maza Valenzuela 1995, table 1, 175-76). Because the income and property requirements had been lifted in 1874, this means that by the 1930s the potential voting population included almost three-quarters of all adults (with women voting in municipal elections beginning in 1935). Given the presence of all the other attributes of a democracy, I have indeed labeled it “an incomplete suffrage democracy,” with the qualifier as a reference basically to the absence of full voting rights for women (Valenzuela 1985, chap. 1, 2000).

Certainly, however, the suffrage was broad enough from the beginning of the twentieth century for the formation of working-class parties on the basis of the burgeoning labor movement (see Valenzuela 1997, 58-69). Yet a central problem of Chilean democracy was that a large percentage (about 40 to 45 percent from the 1920s to the 1940s; see Maza Valenzuela 1995, table 1) of potential voters did not bother to register to vote; and of those who did-a considerable number, up to half on occasion, such as in 1920-did not show up to vote. Registration and voting were voluntary, not compulsory, as in Argentina after 1912. This explains why the numbers of voters over the total population were so low. Such numbers resulted primarily from voter apathy (much like that in the United States currently) and not from restrictions placed on the voting public, as Colomer seems to imply. The rapid expansion of the numbers of voters only really took off after a 1962 law made registration and voting compulsory. But the larger numbers of voters did not alter the balance of political forces in the country, and Salvador Allende was elected in 1970 with a lower percentage of the vote than the one he had received in 1964. It is not credible to argue that the larger electorate had any effect on the breakdown of democracy in 1973.

As I explained quite some time ago (Valenzuela 1985, 1996), the income, property, or occupation requirements that existed before 1874 were never an impediment to the registration as voters of artisans, workers, miners, or very small property holders. The levels were deliberately set low enough so that such categories of voters could indeed participate in the elections. The Chilean labor movement (as was the case in most of the Americas), in contrast to the patterns in northern Europe, never had to fight for the extension of suffrage because workers and artisans were actually voting from the earliest decades after independence. Therefore it is not true, as Colomer implies with his scheme, that Chile illustrates a case in which “restrictions” prevented the dangerous classes from voting. And if the literacy requirement remained in place in 1874, it was only because of technical legal reasons; namely that the opponents of the government who passed the electoral reform in Congress did not have the possibility of changing the constitutional provisions for voting rights. They therefore opted for making literacy the test that met those provisions.


While I am very pleased to see a new discussion of Latin American elections because there is still much work to be done on this subject, I am afraid Colomer’s article unfortunately has a number of deficiencies. I do not see what the author gains from his model in terms of better explaining the case histories he selects. And his descriptions of the cases, as well as the material he has included in table 1, contain important errors of fact and of interpretation.


Alonso, Paula. 1996. Voting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Before 1912. In Elections Before Democracy: The History of Elections in Europe and Latin America, ed. Eduarde Posada-Carbo. London: Macmillan. 181-99.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Keyssar, Alexander. 2000. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the united States. New York: Basic Books.

Malamud, Carlos. 1997. Partidos poluicos y elecciones en la Argentina: la Liga del Sur (1908-1916). Madrid: Universidad Nacional de Educacion a la Distancia.

_____. 2000. La efimera reforma electoral de 1902 en Argentina. In Legitimidad, representacion y alternancia en Espana y America Latina: las reformas electorales (1880-1930), ed. Malamud. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica. 103-29

Maza Valenzuela, Erika. 1995. Catolicismo, anticlericalismo y extension del sufragio a la mujer en Chile. Estudios Publicos 58 (Fall): 137-95.

_____. 2000. Las mujeres chilenas y la ciudadania electoral: de la exclusion al voto municipal, 1884-1934. In Legitimidad, representacion y alternancia en Espana y America LatinaL: las reformas electorales (1880-1930), ed. Carlos Malamud. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica. 162-81.

Posada-Carbo, Eduardo. 2000. Electoral Juggling: A Comparative History of Corruption of Suffrage in Latin America, 1830-1930. Journal of Latin American Studies 32, 3 (October): 611-44.

Rokkan, Stein. 1970. Citizens, Elections, Parties: Approaches to the Comparative Study of the Processes of Development. New York: David McKay.

Valenzuela, J. Samuel. 1985. Democratizacion via reforma: la expansion del sufragio en Chile. Buenos Aires: IDES.

_____. 1996. Building Aspects of Democracy Before Democracy: Electoral Practices in Nineteenth Century Chile. In Elections Before Democracy: The History of Elections in Europe and Latin America, ed. Eduardo Posada-Carbo. London: Macmillan. 223-57.

_____. 1997. The Origins and Transformations of the Chilean Party System. In Political Culture, Social Movements, and Democratic Transitions in South America in the 20th Century, ed. Fernando Devoto and Torcuato S. Di Telia. Milan: Feltrinelli. 47-99.

_____. 2000. La ley electoral de 1890 y la democratizacion del regimen politico chileno. In Legitimidad, representacion y alternancia en Espana y America Latina: las reformas electorales (1880-1930), ed. Carlos Malamud. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica. 130-61.

Copyright Latin American Politics and Society Summer 2004

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