U.S.-Latin America: Who Can Learn from Whom about Elections?

By Todd A. Eisenstadt*

Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas.
Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas./ Dr. Todd Eisenstadt

The irony of an increasingly probable electoral crisis in the United States this year is not lost on observers in Latin America, who have endured multiple challenges to the legitimacy of elections for decades – nor is the irony that the United States could learn from the region’s hard, if still incomplete, lessons in democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to raise doubts about the fairness of the November 3 elections have been reported widely in Latin America. Citing unknown sources and unconfirmed events, he has alleged massive voter fraud and predicted court challenges so serious that, he said, it’s especially urgent that his nominee to the Supreme Court be seated immediately.

Such ominous-sounding challenges to elections are not new to most of Latin America. Mexico is not unique in this regard, but I saw its whimsical and exotic election frauds closeup in the 1980s and ‘90s as an international elections observer.

  • In the razor-close 1988 election, the lights went out during the vote count, and by the time they came back on the renegade outsider leftist had lost his lead against the PRI’s candidate. Political operatives called mapaches (“racoons” because they worked only in the dark), breakfast bribes (called Tamale Operations), and voters who made the rounds all day long to cast ballots in different precincts (carruseles or “carrousels”) were common. Crazy Mouse, named after the board game, was a scheme in which opponents of the PRI were sent from precinct to precinct only to be told they were to vote across town. Similar tricks, as well as intimidation, have been common in many other countries. Latin Americans are accustomed to wondering whether the military will have to escort a president who loses an election out the door, but it’s a totally new point of speculation for the U.S. population.

Although still far from perfect, Mexico and other Latin American countries have improved their elections. The unwritten code among political bosses in Mexico has long been to not ruin national institutions (like the postal system) or invite foreign interference (like Russian manipulation of public opinion). But other steps signal a shift away from zero-sum political games.

  • Since the 1990s, post-electoral negotiations to mollify the victors’ opponents – “keep them in the game” rather than make them a destabilizing force – gave them perches from which to eventually mount legal challenges, including rightist Vicente Fox (an interim governor who later became President) and current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in Citizens United reduced regulation of campaign donations, but Mexico has limited campaign finance and TV advertising. It has encouraged the independence of electoral institutions and set federal standards in all 32 states, which have one voter list matched against one voter ID per citizen – rather than 50 states and 3,000 counties with different criteria. Electoral observers are trained about citizens’ rights and responsibilities, not mobilized out of distrust for the system or to intimidate voters.
  • Since the turn of the century, most Latin American countries have put greater emphasis on the rule of law and tried, albeit inconsistently, to address economic inequality and other threats to democracy and stability. They have also learned the hard lesson that sometimes “dirty elections” must be cleaned through broad citizen mobilization with the support of national and international leaders. Some observers wonder whether the Black Lives Matter movement will expand and evolve into a mobilization akin to the cacerolazos in Chile and elsewhere in the 1980s that helped galvanize opposition to the dictatorships of the era.

The chaos, isolation, and economic pain caused by COVID‑19 make Latin America’s democracy lessons even more pressing for the United States. Voters fear going to the polls and are anxious about trusting balloting systems, such as mail-in voting, that President Trump is trying to delegitimize. The U.S. military, wittingly or not, mobilized troops to support the President’s suppression of civil protests. U.S. voters are in unfamiliar territory.

  • The hemisphere is watching closely if – and how – El Norte figures out how to exorcise the fears and the doubt that are undermining its democracy. Bringing in a slew of smart and seasoned international election observers from Mexico and elsewhere would be a start. So would learning from the Mexican opposition parties how to subvert expediency, especially in the time of COVID, in favor of longer-term discipline for democratization.

October 6, 2020

* Todd A. Eisenstadt teaches political science at American University and is author of several books on democratization, including Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions, for which he observed over a dozen local and national elections there.

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