Protesting via the Null Ballot: An Assessment of the Decision to Cast an Invalid Vote in Latin America


Rates of invalid voting in Latin America are among the highest in the world. Yet, scholars have not reached an agreement about whether these votes are driven by voter protest and, if so, what voters are protesting. Understanding whether these high invalid vote rates signify anti-democratic tendencies is particularly relevant given recent recessions in democratic quality across the region. This paper presents a theoretical framework and empirical tests using individual level data from 14 Latin American countries to show that invalid voting in presidential contests is used by individuals, particularly those high in knowledge, to protest poor government performance. However, invalid voting is not, on balance, an anti-system behavior. While political alienation differentially predicts invalid voting in countries with mandatory vote laws, the link between performance assessments and self-reported invalid voting is consistent across various contextual features that scholars link to invalid voting behavior.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    The proportion of invalid votes was larger than the margin of victory between first and second place candidates in 39 of 56 first or single round elections.

  2. 2.

    Striking examples of high invalid vote rates exist at the national and supranational levels. For example, in the 2011 judicial elections in Bolivia, invalid ballots accounted for nearly 60% of all votes cast, and in Colombia’s 2014 elections for the supranational Andean Parliament, 53% of votes were invalid, nullifying the entire electoral proceeding. See Driscoll and Nelson (2012, 2014) for in depth discussion of the 2011 Bolivian judicial elections.

  3. 3.

    I define “anti-system” attitudes as an individual’s expressed preference for a governing system other than the status quo (in Latin America, democracy). An “anti-system” behavior is one that seeks to enact this preference (e.g., by the overthrow of the status quo government). This term does not refer to low levels of legitimacy or “diffuse support” for the political system.

  4. 4.

    In some cases (for example, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru) an election can be nullified and a new election called if invalid votes comprise a majority or super-majority of all ballots.

  5. 5.

    It is also possible that validly cast ballots are manipulated by election officials during the vote tally as a means to change election outcomes. Indeed, there is a weak negative correlation between levels of election cleanliness as measured by the Varieties of Democracy Project and reported levels of invalid voting (ρ = −0.12) for the elections studied here, which lends limited support to this argument. I do not explore this possibility in depth here.

  6. 6.

    Three exceptions are Power and Garand (2007), Uggla (2008), and Kouba and Lysek (2016). These papers observe invalid voting in a cross-national, multi-election context but use aggregate electoral data to test their claims.

  7. 7.

    Three exceptions are Stiefbold (1965), Carlin (2006), and Driscoll and Nelson (2014). These papers use individual level data, but are each limited to a single country case and election period.

  8. 8.

    Conversely, individual-level survey data only provide leverage over intentional invalid voting. Using public opinion data thus does not allow me to assess who accidentally casts invalid votes, or with what frequency.

  9. 9.

    Source: The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Data and replication files for all analyses presented here are available at:

  10. 10.

    Detailed information about all variables used in analyses is available in Table A in the Online Appendix.

  11. 11.

    Reported invalid vote rates should not correspond perfectly to official reports, as surveys are prone to sampling and reporting error (for example, turnout is consistently over reported here) and some portion of invalid voting likely occurs by accident in all elections.

  12. 12.

    The AmericasBarometer includes a second vote choice variable that asks respondents about their hypothetical behavior “if the election were held this week.” Responses to this vote choice item are inconsistent with invalid vote rates reported by national electoral commissions in all but two countries in the sample (see Online Appendix Table C2 for more details). Given this paper’s focus on understanding the attitudinal profile of those who intentionally invalidate ballots, rather than those who might be open to the behavior, I use the retrospective measure.

  13. 13.

    Discontented individuals might also consider voting for outsider candidates. Why opt to nullify one’s ballot rather than select an outsider? Some voters may do so because they have observed poor performance by elected outsiders and therefore view these candidates with suspicion. It is also possible that outsider candidates tend to disproportionately promote illiberal policies. Given their relative support for democracy as a form of government (see below), invalid voters may prefer not to support candidates promoting anti-democratic policies (see also Footnote 20).

  14. 14.

    I use the psychological conceptualization of alienation here, and follow extant scholarship by focusing on the “powerlessness in politics” dimension—or low external efficacy (Finifter 1970; Kabashima et al. 2000).

  15. 15.

    Invalid voting driven by voter alienation might thus be more common when many candidates compete for the presidency. In additional analyses, I assessed the interactive effect between attitudinal variables and the effective number of candidates; I found no evidence of such a relationship. This could indicate no such relationship, or the non-finding may be due to limited variation in the number of competitive candidate options in this sample of country-years.

  16. 16.

    In additional analyses, I assessed whether the relationship between the effective number of candidates and Freedom House democracy scores affected the attitudes associated with invalid voting. I found no evidence that these features changed invalid voters’ motivations.

  17. 17.

    Abstention may not be truly costless in voluntary vote countries. Indeed, Zulfikarpasic (2001) indicates that rural French voters cast invalid ballots as a means of covert abstention, as a means to subvert social control.

  18. 18.

    Countries included in statistical analyses are: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

  19. 19.

    Blank and spoiled votes are not distinguishable in the AmericasBarometer data prior to 2014. Some have suggested that blank votes are a clearer protest signal than spoiled ballots as the former is necessarily intentional, while the latter may be caused by voter error (Zulfikarpasic 2001; Uggla 2008; but see Driscoll and Nelson 2014). Abstention is consistently underreported.

  20. 20.

    Following Uggla’s (2008) insight that invalid voting is similar to voting for extra-parliamentary parties, I coded respondents who voted for a minor opposition candidate (received less than 5% of all votes) as a separate category in robustness checks. Respondents who voted for these candidates most closely resembled valid voters in their attitudes; however, they did report lower trust in elections and interest in politics than intentional invalid voters.

  21. 21.

    Analyses presented in Online Appendix D link these political attitudes to voters’ expressed motivations for casting blank or spoiled ballots.

  22. 22.

    Although scholars have shown that support for democracy is over-reported in the aggregate when measured using these standard items, recent work affirms the utility of these items in individual-level analyses like those presented here (Kiewiet de Jonge 2016).

  23. 23.

    In robustness checks, I included measures of respondents’ perceptions of and experiences with corruption as additional measure of the Anti-System Motivation, with the expectation that those who experienced or perceived more corruption (a direct consequence of low quality democratic governance) would be more likely to cast invalid votes. The corruption variables were insignificant in all model specifications. Because the corruption questions were not included in all countries and years, I do not show those results here.

  24. 24.

    Confirmatory factor analysis supported the creation of the index: the lowest factor loading was 0.81 (eigenvalue = 2.73), and Cronbach’s alpha is 0.90.

  25. 25.

    Alternative model specifications show invalid voters also trust political parties significantly less than valid voters and abstainers—another implication of the policy discontent motivation.

  26. 26.

    Personal and national economic perceptions are correlated (ρ = 0.44). Results are robust to sequentially removing each measure.

  27. 27.

    Because variables measuring recent protest participation were not included in the Guatemala 2008 study, that country is excluded from the analysis presented in Table 1.

  28. 28.

    All statistical analyses were performed using STATA 13.

  29. 29.

    When I estimate the model for individual countries in the sample, this pattern generally holds. Even in countries where democracy is sometimes considered “weak” or of “poor quality” (e.g., Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela), those who cast invalid votes are not distinguishable from others in terms of their support for democracy. In Honduras and Uruguay, those who cast invalid votes are less supportive of democracy than all others. In Bolivia and Panama, in contrast, invalid voting is associated with greater support for democracy than valid voting.

  30. 30.

    Support for Democracy and Preference for Democracy are correlated at 0.20, and results are robust to sequentially removing each of the democracy variables.

  31. 31.

    This non-finding is robust to sequentially removing each economic variable from the model. Again, the average tendency does not hold in all countries. In Uruguay, the perception that one’s personal economic situation has declined was positively associated with abstention and valid voting, while in Ecuador, abstainers and valid voters viewed their personal economic situation as better, on average, than those who cast invalid votes.

  32. 32.

    I assessed model fit using Akaike’s Inclusion Criterion (AIC), which penalizes models for the number of parameters estimated. A lower AIC suggests better model fit. The AIC for a baseline model including only demographic characteristics is 1.12, while the model incorporating these protest variables has a slightly lower AIC of 1.06.

  33. 33.

    Protest participation is not theoretically linked to the motivations discussed above, so is not included here. When protest is included, none of the estimated cross-level interactions are statistically significant.

  34. 34.

    This constitutes the strictest test of the second round “stakes” argument. In some countries where second round elections are legally possible, they were unlikely to occur in the years studied here given pre-election polls. The stakes argument requires that protesting voters estimate the likelihood that their vote will be decisive and the probability that the election will result in a second round; this variable reflects the latter half of that calculus.

  35. 35.

    Because the estimated statistical significance of interaction terms can be misleading (Kam and Franzese 2007), I plotted the effects of each cross-level interaction. Those plots were consistent with results shown here.


  1. Alvarez, R. M., & Nagler, J. (1998). When politics and models collide: Estimating models of multiparty elections. American Journal of Political Science, 42(1), 55–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Anderson, C. (2007). The end of economic voting? Contingency dilemmas and the limits of democratic accountability. Annual Review of Political Science, 10, 271–296.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Benton, A. L. (2005). Dissatisfied democrats or retrospective voters? Economic hardship, political institutions, and voting behavior in Latin America. Comparative Political Studies, 38(4), 417–442.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Carlin, R. E. (2006). The decline of citizen participation in electoral politics in post-authoritarian Chile. Democratization, 13(4), 632–651.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Carlin, R. E., & Love, G. J. (2015). Who is the Latin American voter? In R. E. Carlin, M. M. Singer, & E. J. Zechmeister (Eds.), The Latin American voter (pp. 31–60). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Carreras, M., & Castañeda-Angarita, N. (2013). Who votes in Latin America? A test of three theoretical perspectives. Comparative Political Studies. doi:10.1177/0010414013488558.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Cisneros, G. I. (2013). Movilización, escolaridad y voto nulo: La elección federal de 2009 en México. Política y Gobierno, 20(1), 39–78.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Clarke, H. D., & Acock, A. C. (1989). National elections and political attitudes: The case of political efficacy. British Journal of Political Science, 19(4), 551–562.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dalton, R. J., & van Sickle, A. (2005). The resource, structural, and cultural bases of protest. Center for the study of democracy. Irvine: University of California.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Denemark, D., & Bowler, S. (2002). Minor parties and protest votes in Australia and New Zealand: locating populist politics. Electoral Studies, 21(1), 47–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Diamond, L. (2015). Facing up to the democratic recession. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), 141–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dow, J. K., & Endersby, J. W. (2004). Multinomial probit and multinomial logit: A comparison of choice models for voting research. Electoral Studies, 23(1), 107–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Driscoll, A., & Nelson, M. J. (2012). The 2011 judicial elections in Bolivia. Electoral Studies, 31(3), 628–632.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Driscoll, A., & Nelson, M. J. (2014). Ignorance or opposition? Blank and spoiled votes in low-information, highly politicized environments. Political Research Quarterly. doi:10.1177/1065912914524634.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Duch, R. M., & Stevenson, R. T. (2008). The economic vote: How political and economic institutions condition election results. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Ferejohn, J. (1986). Incumbent performance and electoral control. Public Choice, 50, 5–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Finifter, A. W. (1970). Dimensions of political alienation. American Political Science Review, 64(2), 389–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Fornos, C. A., Power, T. J., & Garand, J. C. (2004). Explaining voter turnout in Latin America, 1980–2000. Comparative Political Studies, 37(8), 909–940.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gelman, A., & Hill, J. (2006). Data analysis using regression and multilevel/hierarchical models. Boston: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Gurr, T. R. (1970). Why men rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Herron, M. C., & Sekhon, J. S. (2005). black candidates and black voters: Assessing the impact of candidate race on uncounted vote rates. Journal of Politics, 67(1), 154–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Hirczy, W. (1994). The impact of mandatory voting laws on turnout: A quasi-experimental approach. Electoral Studies, 13(1), 64–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Jackman, R. W. (1987). Political institutions and voter turnout in the industrial democracies. American Political Science Review, 81(2), 405–423.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Kabashima, I., Marshall, J., Uekami, T., & Hyun, D. (2000). Casual cynics or disillusioned democrats? Political Alienation in Japan. Political Psychology, 21(4), 779–804.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Kam, C. D., & Franzese, R. (2007). Modeling and interpreting interactive hypotheses in regression analysis. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Karp, J. A., & Banducci, S. A. (2008). Political efficacy and participation in twenty-seven democracies: How electoral systems shape political behaviour. British Journal of Political Science, 38(2), 311–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kiewet de Jonge, C. P. (2016). Should researchers abandon questions about “democracy”? Evidence from Latin America. Public Opinion Quarterly. doi:10.1093/poq/nfw008.

    Google Scholar 

  28. King, G., Keohane, R. O., & Verba, S. (1994). Designing social inquiry: Scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Knack, S., & Kropf, M. (2003a). Roll-off at the top of the ballot: Intentional undervoting in American presidential elections. Politics & Policy, 31(4), 575–594.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Knack, S., & Kropf, M. (2003b). Voided ballots in the 1996 presidential election: A county-level analysis. The Journal of Politics, 65(3), 881–897.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Kostadinova, T. (2003). Voter turnout dynamics in post-communist Europe. European Journal of Political Research, 42(6), 741–759.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kouba, K., & Lysek, J. (2016). Institutional determinants of invalid voting in post-communist Europe and Latin America. Electoral Studies, 41, 92–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Lewis-Beck, M., & Ratto, M. C. (2013). Economic voting in Latin America: A general model. Electoral Studies, 32(3), 489–493.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Lijphart, A. (1997). Unequal participation: Democracy’s unresolved dilemma presidential address, American Political Science Association, 1996. American Political Science Review, 91(1), 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Maggiotto, M. A., & Piereson, J. E. (1977). Partisan identification and electoral choice: The hostility hypothesis. American Journal of Political Science, 21(4), 745–767.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Mcallister, I., & Makkai, T. (1993). Institutions, society or protest? Explaining invalid votes in Australian elections. Electoral Studies, 12(1), 23–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Moral, M. (2016). The passive-aggressive voter: The calculus of casting an invalid vote in European democracies. Political Research Quarterly, 69(4), 732–745.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Moseley, M. W. (2015). Contentious engagement: Understanding protest participation in Latin American democracies. Journal of Politics in Latin America, 7(3), 3–48.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Moseley, M.W., and Moreno, D. (2010). The normalization of protest in Latin America. Americas Baromter Insights No. 42.

  40. Murillo, M. V., Oliveros, M., & Vaishnav, M. (2010). Electoral revolution or democratic alternation? Latin American Research Review, 45(3), 87–114.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Nicolau, J. (2015). Impact of electronic voting machines on blank votes and null votes in Brazilian elections in 1998. Brazilian Political Science Review, 9(3), 3–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Norris, P. (1997). Choosing electoral systems: Proportional, majoritarian, and mixed systems. International Political Science Review, 18(3), 297–312.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Norris, P., Walgrave, S., & Van Aelst, P. (2005). Who demonstrates? Antistate rebels, conventional participants or everyone? Comparative Politics, 37(2), 189–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Olsen, M. E. (1968). Two categories of political alienation. Social Forces, 47(3), 288–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Power, T. J., & Garand, J. C. (2007). Determinants of invalid voting in Latin America. Electoral Studies, 26, 432–444.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Power, T. J., & Roberts, J. T. (1995). Compulsory voting, invalid ballots, and abstention in Brazil. Political Research Quarterly, 48(4), 795–826.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Przeworski, A., & Teune, H. (1970). The logic of comparative social inquiry. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Puddington, A. (2012) Latin America’s wavering democracies. Freedom house blog. Retrieved January 1, 2017 from

  49. Rose, R., & Mishler, W. (1998). Negative and positive party identification in post-communist countries. Electoral Studies, 17(2), 217–234.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Shugart, M. S., & Carey, J. M. (1992). Presidents and assemblies: Constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Boston: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Singh, S. P. (2015). Compulsory voting and the turnout decision calculus. Political Studies, 63(3), 548–568.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Söderlund, P., Wass, H., & Blais, A. (2011). The impact of motivational and contextual factors on turnout in first-and second-order elections. Electoral Studies, 30(4), 689–699.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Stiefbold, R. P. (1965). The significance of void ballots in West German Elections. American Political Science Review, 59(2), 391–407.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Superti, C. (2015). Popular trust, mistrust, and approval: Measuring and understanding citizens’ attitudes toward democratic institutions. Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard University.

  55. Tillman, E. R. (2008). Economic judgments, party choice, and voter abstention in cross-national perspective. Comparative Political Studies, 41(9), 1290–1309.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Uggla, F. (2008). Incompetence, alienation, or calculation? Explaining levels of invalid ballots and extra-parliamentary votes. Comparative Political Studies, 21, 1141–1164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: Civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Zulfikarpasic, A. (2001). Le vote blanc: Abstention civique ou expresión politique? Revue Francaise de Science Politique, 51(1–2), 247–268.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I thank Liz Zechmeister, Zeynep Somer-Topçu, Tim Power, Jon Hiskey, Mitch Seligson, Cindy Kam, the Comparative Politics and LAPOP working groups at Vanderbilt University, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. I thank the Latin American Public Opinion Project and its major supporters (the United States Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Vanderbilt University) for making the data available.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mollie J. Cohen.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 126 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cohen, M.J. Protesting via the Null Ballot: An Assessment of the Decision to Cast an Invalid Vote in Latin America. Polit Behav 40, 395–414 (2018).

Download citation


  • Invalid voting
  • Null voting
  • Latin America
  • Political behavior
  • Protest vote