El Salvador joins the panachage ranks, president’s party holds steady

El Salvador held its legislative election on 1 March, using a modified electoral system. The country had already left behind the closed list in 2012, replacing it with an open list. This year the country moved to panachage, the variant of open list in which voters may vote for candidates on different lists (sometimes called “free list”).

El Salvador is one of the few pure presidential systems still using an electoral cycle (a long-term interest of mine) consisting of all non-concurrent elections, with presidential terms of five years and legislative terms of three years. This election is in the first year of the incumbent president’s term, and offered neither “surge” nor decline in his party’s legislative support.

I was first tipped off to the change to panachage by a remark in a Tico Times article just before the election that said:

For the first time, voters will be able to select individual candidates from any party rather than being forced to vote for a single party with an established list of candidates. Voters can still opt to simply choose a party.

This is definitely far more detailed than your average journalistic note about an electoral system. But to be sure, I checked with the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, which has a very useful gallery of ballot images and instruction cards. Below I post an image of the instructions for the district (department) of Cabañas.

ElSal 2015 guia

It offers the voter five options:

      1. Vote solely for the list of a party or coalition;
      2. Vote for a list and mark the photo of “one, various, or all the candidates” on that list;
      3. Mark the photo of “one, various, or all the candidates” in one list (without also indicating a list vote);
      4. “Mark candidates of distinct political parties or coalition” or candidates of distinct parties and a non-party candidate”, not exceeding the total number of deputies elected from the district.
      5. Mark the photo of a non-party candidate.**

It is option 4 that clearly establishes panachage.

By contrast, in 2012, the options excluded any mention of marking candidates across different lists.

El Salvador open list 2012

See also images of a portion of the ballot from 2015 or 2012.

For a long time the only panachage systems in use at the national level (to my knowledge) were in Luxembourg and Switzerland. In 2005, Honduras adopted such a system, and now one of its immediate neighbors has followed suit. (I believe Ecuador still uses a panchage system adopted several years ago; Venezuela used one at least once, but only at the municipal level.)

As for the election itself, there was a considerable delay in reporting the results. It does not seem that the panachage system had anything to do with the delay.

Preliminary results suggest that the opposition ARENA will have a plurality of seats, with 35 (of 84). That would represent a gain of two seats from the 2012 legislative election. The governing FMLN is likely to have 31 (no change) and its ally GANA 10 (-1). The PCN (the pre-1979 ruling party, still just hanging on) is expected to have 6 (-1) and the PDC would have 2 (a doubling of seats for this party that was the main alternative to the right before the civil war ended).

El Salvador hence essentially maintains its long-term relative stasis and close left-right division. The incumbent president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN, was elected by a very narrow margin a year ago. This election barely changes the balance of power, even though it occurs within the first year of a president’s five-year term and hence could qualify as a “honeymoon election”. In Salvadoran politics, there really isn’t much of a honeymoon, or any near-term prospect for the much-anticipated realignment. The big swing to the FMLN in the 2009 legislative election looks, in retrospect, like a blip within what is otherwise ongoing stasis.

It will be interesting to see if the move to an electoral system allowing cross-party voting for the first time begins to break down El Salvador’s remarkably rigid partisan lines.***

* Elections could be concurrent every 15 years, as they were in 1994. However, in 2009, the legislative election was shifted to the “counter-honeymoon” and held in January, with the presidential election, as usual, in March.

** In both options 4 and 5, the reference to independents is singular; logically if voting for an independent is an alternative to voting for a party, one could vote for only one independent just as one can vote for only one party. On the other hand, in a panachage world, one actually can vote for more than  one party (assuming a vote for any candidate also counts for the party on whose list the candidate was nominated), so why would there need to be a restriction on the number of votes that a voter may give for independents? (Note that it is probably quite difficult for an independent candidate to be elected in any case.) [I edited this footnote shortly after posting.]

*** Whether the partisan lines over El Salvador can ever be broken down in the United States is another matter.

28 thoughts on “El Salvador joins the panachage ranks, president’s party holds steady

  1. If I understood correctly, Bremen and Hamburg also recently adopted the free list system for state-level elections.


    • Interesting, JD (and that is vaguely familiar to me as well). I guess the idea is spreading. I don’t fully understand the appeal (or the logic) of such systems.


      • I think that in these days of decreasing partisanship and increasing distrust of all political parties, a lot of people would be quite happy to be able to have the possibility of spreading their votes among candidates of different parties. This is in general, though; I think it probably accounts more for the Hanseatic cities than for El Salvador, which you say is still very partisan. More importantly though, I would wonder why politicians would be willing to adopt such a system, considering the potential decrease in control they might have over legislators.

        I have to admit I don’t yet fully understand the free list system. What if you don’t use all your votes? If you’re only voting for one party, it’s clear that your full vote goes to that one party, while the preference votes strengthen the specific candidates you voted for relative to the others on the list. But what if, for instance, you cast one vote for candidate a on list A and one vote for b on list B, all the while having 5 votes? Is there then a fractional calculation? If so how, and does the overall value of my vote drop if I don’t cast all the votes?


      • > “I don’t fully understand the appeal (or the logic) of such systems”
        I suppose it is for voters whose main concern is electing more women or electing more fellow Reformed Eight-Day Pastafarians. They don’t have to form a separate party, they just have to cumulate their votes among the female or Reformed Eight-Day Pastafarian candidates already on the existing parties’ lists. Enid Lakeman in POWER TO ELECT (1982) cites the Jurassien home-rule movement that succeeded in having their own Canton jura carved out from bern in 1978-79 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canton_of_Jura. They didn’t need to form their own equivalent of Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, Bloc Quebecois or the SNP, but rather just voted for pro-separation candidates from the existing parties.


    • In Hamburg Panache at first only used at the constituency level. Since 2011 they use it too at the state list level. Hamburg has probably the only system with 2 PR tiers that has MMP-like split ballots for them


    • It seems that the STV vote goes farther than the free list system? I thought panachage is two lists pooling their votes together and has nothing to do with whether the list is free or not. Doesn’t Israel with a close party list system use panachage?


      • Rob, panachage is the ability to distribute votes between candidates from different party lists. Block voting has panachage, as you can cast multiple votes for candidates regardless of party. I think you are talking about vote pooling, which does happen in Israel.


        • “Block voting has panachage”, which is, of course, why it is not block voting. It is a system of multiple non-transferable votes.

          Otherwise, I agree with Henry’s comment.

          Further: the critical differences among STV, MNTV (“block vote”), and “free list” is that in the latter, a vote for any candidate is a vote that pools to the list on which the candidate was nominated (bar non-partisan candidates, of course). Under MNTV, it is not a vote for anyone other than the candidate for whom it was cast. And while STV does allow voters to cross party lines, remember the “S” part of STV: it is only a single vote, meaning ultimately you are not giving equal weight to more than one candidate, you are merely directing what other candidate your vote should help if your first ranked candidate should not be able to use the vote (and so on, through rounds of preference transfer).


        • One further amendment to Henry’s comment. Vote pooling happens under any list system: votes are pooled on across the candidates running on the list. (Closed vs. open, etc., then affects only the intra-list order of election of those candidates.)

          A further level of pooling does indeed occur in Israel and some other systems whereby two lists (or, in principle, more) can retain their separate ballot status, but pool their votes. As Rob noted in a subsequent comment, this is generally known as “apparentement”.


  2. The appeal and logic of these systems are to ensure that as many of the legislature as possible can point to being directly elected by voters, which enhances their legitimacy, and the legitimacy of the legislature in general in the eyes of voters and the elites. I honestly think political scientists tend to underrate the value of this. It is an important argument for single member districts, where a member of the legislature can point to a specific town and group of voters that they are the emissary for (note that in the US this is seriously undermined by both gerrymandering, and the fact that the legislator in practice has historically been really “elected” by the local political machine or a few campaign contributors).

    The circle that is to be squared is how to incorporate the element of direct election, while ensuring a closer relationship between party strengths in the legislature and their support among the electorate in the most recent election (proportionality).

    My opinion on proportionality is that disproportality is fine as long as their is some way to avoid two negative outcomes of single member district elections, the first being parties that have fairly substantial support that are marginalized in the legislature or have no members at all, and the second being preventing reversals, a governing party or coalition that a majority of the electorate almost certainly opposes at the time of the election.


  3. I understand the logic of allowing for open lists. I do not understand the logic for further allowing panachage. As JD notes in a comment up-thread, there are all sorts of additional complications concerning how votes are weighted given that many voters do not cast as many votes as they can. I do not know the rules specifically adopted for this purpose in El Salvador. For that matter, I really can’t claim to understand how it works in Luxembourg or Switzerland. (The relevant pages at Election Resources are helpful, as always.)

    My guess is that there are no further rules to deal with the weighting of votes, and that voters who cast only some limited number of preference votes simply get less representation. I would imagine that a party vote counts as M votes for the party (where M is the district magnitude), but there could be some other procedure. I believe official results in Switzerland report the total number of voters and the total number of votes per party, and of course the number of votes can be much more than the number of voters, but well below M*voters, which would be the maximum.

    There is a further provision in Luxembourg and Switzerland: voters may give up to two votes for a given candidate (cumulation).

    I have no idea why Salvadoran elites adopted this system. The initial change to open lists in 2012 was mandated by a court ruling against the closed lists on some constitutional principle. By why, after just one election, they went this further step, I do not know.


    • In Switzerland and Luxembourg, the usual method for obtaining party vote percentages on a nationwide basis calls for the division of votes cast in a given constituency for a party list (or quite often in the case of Switzerland, lists – in multi-seat cantons, Swiss parties often field multiple lists representing various interests i.e. women, youth, linguistic minorities in multi-lingual cantons and so on, which are nonetheless linked via vote pooling) by the number of seats to be filled in said constituency; repeat the previous procedure for each party in every constituency; add up the nationwide totals for each party; and finally calculate the nationwide vote percentages on the basis of said totals. However, unlike the vote percentages – which are widely available – the raw figures are rarely published, but at one point the Swiss Parliament website had them online, and if I’m not mistaken the website of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies also had them for at least one recent election prior to 2013. At any rate, I have them on my website, calculated from official returns, with nationwide and constituency-level percentages verified against official sources.

      In Switzerland, the difference between the calculated nationwide party vote totals and the actual number of valid votes cast was relatively small last time around (1.3% in 2011), but in Luxembourg the figure was considerably larger (7.7% in 2013). Incidentally, for 2013 election-night results only, the official Luxembourg elections site used a different formula to obtain nationwide party vote percentages, which simply added up the votes won by the parties in the four constituencies, without applying any kind of weighting. I thought that was a really bad idea: it effectively distorted the nationwide percentages by nearly squaring the seat proportions, and if I recall correctly the site had to subsequently issue an explanation to an understandably confused public. I also recall that back in 2011 one Swiss election site eliminated the gap between calculated vote totals and valid votes by multiplying the calculated party percentages by the total number of valid votes.

      At any rate, El Salvador – where the system currently in place stems from a Supreme Court ruling issued last November (and a further clarification of said decision the following December) – pursued a completely different approach. In the recently held election there, a vote cast for a party list was counted as one, as it has been the case in the past; however, a “voto cruzado” or cross-ticket vote, that is a vote cast for candidates from different parties was apportioned as fractions among the parties, relative to the total number of votes cast by the voter for specific candidates – which could have been fewer than the number of seats to be filled. As noted on the TSE’s blog here,

      “Preservar la [sic] valor de la unidad del voto […] significa que de acuerdo al número de veces que el ciudadano marque en la papeleta de votación, así será el fraccionamiento que se haga del voto, generando al final la unificación de todos los porcentajes en una unidad valorativa.”

      This procedure complies with the Supreme Court’s clarification last December, which ruled that

      “cuando los ciudadanos decidan emitir voto cruzado, la sumatoria de las fracciones en que se divida el voto, no puede ser en ningún caso inferior al valor de la unidad. Otorgarle un valor diferente a las marcas o fracciones, en el supuesto del voto cruzado, implica dar un
      tratamiento diferente al ciudadano que opta por esta modalidad, respecto del que vota por bandera, lo cual es una violación al carácter igualitario del voto, consagrado en el art. 78 Cn., y contradice la jurisprudencia de esta Sala (Inc. 57-2011, Sentencia de 7-XI-2011).

      En consecuencia, cada ciudadano tiene derecho a un voto, y a que éste tenga el mismo peso o valor en la obtención de los escaños legislativos, independientemente del número de marcas que decida consignar entre los candidatos, en la modalidad de voto cruzado.”

      In other words, if a voter chose fewer constituency candidates from different parties than he or she was entitled to vote for, it still counts as one full vote.

      The full text of the Court’s clarification is available as a Spanish-language PDF file here, while the text of the original ruling (also in Spanish) can be browsed here. There were no election night results on the TSE’s website – the system failed disastrously, allegedly due to sabotage – but ongoing canvass results are available in Spanish here.


      • Thanks, Manuel. This is fascinating.

        Why was there a court ruling on cross-party voting before the election? Was the amendment to the 2012 law challenged on “abstract” grounds of constitutionality?


      • Matthew,

        You’re welcome. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed last year by former TSE magistrate Félix Ulloa hijo and two members of the Social Initiative for Democracy (a citizen empowerment group), which challenged the constitutionality of the sections in El Salvador’s Electoral Code that prohibited voters from selecting candidates from different parties i.e. “voto cruzado” or cross-ticket voting, and invalidated any votes cast in such manner. Put succinctly, the plaintiffs were of the view that the 2012 reform was an “incomplete acknowledgement of electoral freedom.”

        The court agreed to hear the case last September; the text of the agreement (in Spanish) can be browsed here, while the full text of the subsequent November ruling is also available here as a PDF file (also in Spanish).


      • That’s very interesting. And although I see the merit in still allowing the full vote weight even with sub-maximal nominations (for El Salvador) or cumulation (for Switzerland), I think it misses the point of actually voting for multiple candidates in the first place.

        By allowing candidates to obtain comparatively more votes through a single voter, the system becomes open to polarisation, populism and extremism. The very beauty of the free list is that all candidates must be nominated far more equally than with a simple open list and can not claim a vastly superior mandate. This “equalising” of candidates dampens the forces of personal populism without sacrificing the general will and forces the representatives to work together in a more mature and stable fashion.


  4. Maybe someone who is better at hacking websites than I am can find the candidates’ votes for 2012 (and, when the count is done, 2015). I don’t see it on the TSE site. There is a “Memoria” of the 2012 election, but it has only party votes (at municipal and departmental level), not votes by candidate. It lists the names of the winners, but that is as far as it goes into the intra-party dimension.


    • Vasi, I think so! Thank you!!

      Now mark your calendar to check for whenever they post 2015, please. (Maybe it will just a matter of changing the last digit of the URL–nah, that would be too easy.)


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  6. I had been ready to clarify Matthew’s parenthetical about Ecuador by saying that it has used panachage for their provincial tier deputies during every national legislative election since 1998. But noting Matthew’s response to Henry (at 10/03/2015 at 11:24 am), I guess I’m forced to say that it began with the 2002 elections. The difference between the 1998 election and subsequent elections is that there was no vote pooling by party in 1998 (this according to Pachano on page 498 at http://www.idea.int/publications/perla/upload/Political_and_Electoral_Reform_in_Latin_America.pdf).
    If that’s the case, what would you call the 1998 system?


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