Miguel Carreras – Presidential Institutions and Electoral Participation in Concurrent Elections in Latin America

This is a guest post by Miguel Carreras, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside (www.miguelcarreras.com). It is based on his recent article in Political Studies.

What is the impact of political institutions on voter turnout in Latin America? Previous studies (Fornos, Power, and Garand 2004, Kostadinova and Power 2007) have addressed this question by replicating a “classic” model (Jackman 1987). This mainstream model evaluates the impact of a series of legislative institutions—district magnitude, the number of parties in the legislature, and unicameralism—on electoral participation. These factors are found to be poor predictors of electoral participation in Latin America. One of these earlier studies concludes that “the classic model provides a weak explanation for turnout in the region” (Pérez-Liñán 2001: 286).

While all these studies have contributed important insights to the literature on electoral participation in Latin America, their assessments of the effect of institutions on turnout have overlooked the fact that Latin American countries have presidential systems of government. In presidential systems, the presidency is the dominant branch of government. Therefore, presidential elections can be described as first-order elections and legislative elections as second-order elections (Reif and Schmitt 1980). The key argument I make in a forthcoming article in Political Studies is that in concurrent elections in Latin America (i.e. when presidential and legislative elections are held on the same day)[1], first-order factors and first-order (i.e. presidential) institutions should have a stronger impact on electoral participation than second-order (i.e. legislative) institutions.

Presidential Institutions and Turnout

The first important factor to consider is the electoral system. Electoral systems regulating the election of the president must determine a threshold of legitimacy considered sufficient for the chief executive to form an authoritative government. Turnout may increase under majority-runoff systems for two reasons. First, voters who support minor or mid-sized parties and realize that their vote will be “lost” may prefer to abstain in plurality systems. Second, under majority-runoff systems, minor parties have more incentives to activate their bases so as to obtain a large share of votes that could be used as an exchange value in the second round (Shugart and Carey 1992).

Hypothesis 1: Turnout is likely to be higher in majority-runoff systems than in plurality systems.

A second institutional characteristic that may be related to electoral participation is term length. All other things being equal, I expect turnout to be higher in countries where the presidential term length is longer for three main reasons. First, the relative costs of voting decrease as the time between elections increases. Second, since dissatisfaction with the political and economic performance of the incumbent government drives electoral participation in developing countries (Aguilar and Pacek 2000), a longer tenure may lead to higher levels of electoral participation by disenchanted citizens who want to punish the president in power. Third, longer presidential terms increase the clarity of responsibility. As a result, it is easier for voters to determine whom to punish or reward for the country’s performance.

Hypothesis 2: Turnout is likely to increase as the presidential term length increases.

The prerogatives vested on the president may also be related to turnout in the region. In fact, concurrent elections in Latin America become more salient when the powers of the president increase. When presidents are more powerful, they are more likely than their weak counterparts in other countries to influence the direction of policymaking and avoid an executive–legislative gridlock. Moreover, when the institution of the presidency carries more powers and prerogatives, presidential elections are more salient to political elites, who are likely to focus efforts on voter mobilization.

Hypothesis 3: Turnout is likely to increase as the legislative powers of the presidents increase.

Political Context and Turnout in Latin American Elections

Previous research has shown that two variables related to the political context in which elections take place have an impact on electoral participation: electoral competition and the number of competing parties (Blais 2006). Surprisingly, previous studies of turnout in Latin America (Fornos, Power, and Garand 2004, Kostadinova and Power 2007) find that competitiveness and the number of parties are unrelated to voter turnout in the region. The Latin American exceptionalism may result from the fact that previous studies have analyzed electoral competition and the number of parties in second-order (i.e. legislative) elections. This study reevaluates the null findings of the literature, applying these two well-known hypotheses of the electoral behavior literature to the first-order rather than to the second-order institution.

Hypothesis 4: Turnout is likely to be higher when the presidential election is close.

Hypothesis 5: Turnout is likely to be lower when the effective number of candidates increases.

Research Design and Results

To test the five hypotheses, this study uses a new cross-national, pooled time series dataset of electoral participation in 102 concurrent elections in 17 Latin American countries between 1980 and 2016. The dependent variable in all of the models presented in this article is turnout as a percentage of voting age population. The data structure is multilevel because there are several observations per country. In other words, election years are clustered within countries. I therefore specify a multilevel model with random intercept coefficients to take into account the hierarchical nature of the data (level 1: country, level 2: election year). The results of the main empirical model in the paper are presented below.

The results provide strong support for my theoretical expectations. In particular, presidential institutions are good predictors of electoral participation in concurrent elections in Latin America. Other things being equal, electoral participation is almost nine percentage points higher in concurrent elections in which there is a majority-runoff system in place for the election of presidents. Term length is positively associated with electoral participation, and the coefficient is statistically significant. An additional year of presidential tenure is likely to increase electoral participation by 4.2 percentage points. In the same vein, the results demonstrate that turnout increases when the legislative powers of the president increase. A 1-point increase in the 10-point presidential power score created by Doyle and Elgie (2016) leads to an increase in electoral participation by 3.2 percentage points. Finally, the effective number of candidates is negatively associated with electoral participation. An increase in one viable candidate in the presidential elections leads to a decrease in turnout in concurrent elections by three percentage points. As expected, in a fully specified institutional model, legislative institutions have a weaker effect on citizens’ decision to turn out on Election Day.

In sum, my findings challenge the conventional wisdom regarding the impact of institutional factors on electoral participation in Latin America. Previous studies of turnout in Latin American elections replicated an institutional model (the “Jackman model”) that is better suited to explain electoral participation in parliamentary systems. By estimating a fully specified model of turnout in concurrent elections in Latin America which includes both first-order (presidential) and second-order (legislative) institutions, I provide the strongest and clearest evidence, to date, of the impact of presidential institutions and the context of presidential elections on turnout in concurrent elections in the region. My empirical results also demonstrate that legislative institutions have minimal effects on voter turnout in concurrent elections in Latin America.


Aguilar, Edwin E., and Alexander C. Pacek. 2000. “Macroeconomic Conditions, Voter Turnout, and the Working-Class/Economically Disadvantaged Party Vote in Developing Countries.”  Comparative Political Studies 33 (8):995-1017.

Blais, André. 2006. “What Affects Voter Turnout?”  Annual Review of Political Science 9:111-125.

Doyle, David, and Robert Elgie. 2016. “Maximizing the Reliability of Cross-National Measures of Presidential Power.”  British Journal of Political Science 46 (4):731-741.

Fornos, Carolina A., Timothy J. Power, and James C. Garand. 2004. “Explaining Voter Turnout in Latin America, 1980 to 2000.”  Comparative Political Studies 37 (8):909-940.

Jackman, Robert W. 1987. “Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies.”  American Political Science Review 81 (2):405-423.

Kostadinova, Tatiana, and Timothy J. Power. 2007. “Does Democratization Depress Participation? Voter Turnout in the Latin American and Eastern European Transitional Democracies.”  Political Research Quarterly 60 (3):363.

Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2001. “Neoinstitutional Accounts of Voter Turnout: Moving Beyond Industrial Democracies.”  Electoral Studies 20 (2):281-297.

Reif, Karlheinz, and Hermann Schmitt. 1980. “Nine second-order national elections – a conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results.”  European Journal of Political Research 8 (1):3-44.

Shugart, Matthew S., and John M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] The majority of elections in Latin America are concurrent—60% of national elections in the region between 1980 and 2016 were concurrent.

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