In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Electoral Change in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History of Elections and Electoral Change
  • Overview of Electoral Institutional Design
  • Explanations of the Origins of Electoral Institutions and Electoral Change
  • Legislatures, Elections, and Incentives
  • Presidential Systems and Electoral Effects

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Political Science Electoral Change in Latin America
Nancy Lapp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0168


Electoral change in Latin America is a broad topic encompassing electoral laws and practices, as well as the behavior of politicians and groups in society. Latin America has much experience with electoral politics and is a rich area of study for those interested in electoral practices and change. Granted, during much of its history Latin American elections fell far short of current democratic ideals, and much of the general literature on electoral politics has ignored Latin America. Democratization since the 1980s brought new life to the study of elections in the region and spawned intense debate over election rules and the shape of new political institutions. Debates arose even over the basic structure of government: whether countries in Latin America should abandon their traditional presidential systems for parliamentary systems (none did). Electoral institutions include the rules and procedures governing who can participate in politics and how: who can vote, how they vote, how representatives are selected on the basis of those votes, and what motivates those representatives when in office. Electoral rules and practices have changed significantly in Latin America. During the 20th century, suffrage expanded dramatically with the extension of the franchise to labor, women, and the poor, and with changes in registration and voting procedures. Indigenous groups also sometimes successfully mobilized and overcame formal and informal barriers to effect political change. Changes in elections continue to affect which and how many parties win legislative and executive elections and shape their behavior during campaigns and in office. Electoral change, as well as economic and societal factors, influenced the success of parties on the political left beginning in the late 1990s. Academics and policymakers have debated which electoral rules would be “best,” whether the goals are political stability or partisan advantage at the polls. Ultimately there is no universal “best” electoral system. The works included here describe the history of electoral change in Latin America, analyze the reasons for and effects of electoral change, and evaluate the implications of electoral rules and practices for representation and accountability in democratic countries.

General Overviews

Many of the traditionally cited works on elections focused on Europe and left out Latin America (Costa Rica often being an exception). More works now include larger databases incorporating Latin America. Classic overviews such as Rae 1971 are important for understanding the context of the literature on elections and electoral change. Taagepera and Shugart 1989 updates these findings with clear explanations. Amy 2000 provides a comprehensive summary of most electoral systems more suitable for undergraduate students. Payne 2002 is a comprehensive overall introduction to politics and electoral institutions in Latin America. Remmer 2008 also provides a good introduction exclusively on Latin America; her article is good for an introduction to the theoretical literature on electoral institutions in Latin America and includes a bibliography to work from.

  • Amy, Douglas J. Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

    Accessible and comprehensive guide to electoral systems appropriate for a general audience. Primarily focuses on legislative elections, though one chapter covers “single-office” elections. Includes Latin American examples.

  • Payne, J. Mark. Democracies in Development: Politics and Reform in Latin America. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2002.

    Covers a wide range of topics, providing information on trends in electoral participation, the effect of presidential and legislative election systems, and campaign finance. Also published in Spanish as La política importa: Democracia y desarrollo en América Latina (2003).

  • Rae, Douglas. The Political Consequences of Election Laws. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

    Seminal book on effects of election laws, originally published in 1967. Necessary background reading for graduate students and others interested in the topic of elections and electoral change.

  • Remmer, Karen. “The Politics of Institutional Change: Electoral Reform in Latin America, 1978–2002.” Party Politics 14.1 (2008): 5–30.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354068807083821

    Excellent introduction to the concepts of electoral institutions and electoral change. Also a concise theoretical literature review with clearly presented data on electoral changes, in addition to quantitative analysis. Helpful bibliography on electoral institutions.

  • Smith, Peter H. Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    A textbook-like book appropriate for all readers that provides a broad overview of democracy. Topics include discussion of the concept and practice of democracy, history of democratic politics, types of political institutions, elections, inequality, and recent social movements.

  • Taagepera, Rein, and Matthew Soberg Shugart. Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    An advanced yet still accessible examination of different electoral systems and their consequences. A general introduction, though makes references to Latin American countries. Important for graduate students.

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