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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), www.LapopSurveys.org. Data and replication files for all analyses presented here are available at: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/2ZEVWT.
Detailed information about all variables used in analyses is available in Table A in the Online Appendix.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Countries included in statistical analyses are: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
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.
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.
Analyses presented in Online Appendix D link these political attitudes to voters’ expressed motivations for casting blank or spoiled ballots.
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).
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.
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.
Alternative model specifications show invalid voters also trust political parties significantly less than valid voters and abstainers—another implication of the policy discontent motivation.
Personal and national economic perceptions are correlated (ρ = 0.44). Results are robust to sequentially removing each measure.
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.
All statistical analyses were performed using STATA 13.
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.
Support for Democracy and Preference for Democracy are correlated at 0.20, and results are robust to sequentially removing each of the democracy variables.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-017-9405-9
- Invalid voting
- Null voting
- Latin America
- Political behavior
- Protest vote