On March 24, 2019, Ecuador held sectional elections to elect 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 867 city councilors, 438 rural councilors, 4,089 members of rural parish councils, and seven councilors of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), a social regulatory body. The elections had a little bit of everything: complex electoral rules and a mixture of systems, bickering over how to count votes, and results that reinforce what political scientists know about electoral systems’ impacts on party systems. I was fortunate enough to observe these elections as part of the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission (EOM). Given that the EOM’s final report was finally presented to the OAS Permanent Council until June 19, 2020, I can now offer some political science-based reflections on the experience.
I’ll describe the array of electoral rules and then highlight three noteworthy factors:
- the difficulty in counting null votes in a plurality-at-large election;
- the political party atomization that “pluralitarian” and free list proportional representation produced; and
- the persistence of ballot order effects in plurality-at-large elections, even with order randomization.
It should be noted that Ecuadorian legislators finally passed a bill in December 2019 to switch from free list PR to closed and blocked lists for multi-member elections, among other changes.
Since 1998, elections in Ecuador have been cognitively demanding due to the complexity of the electoral lists and rules governing voting. 2019 was no exception. Despite being a national process, not all voters cast the same number of votes or even used the same number of ballots: voters in urban areas received six ballots to elect representatives at four levels of government (prefect, mayor, urban councilor, CPCCS representatives), while voters in rural areas received seven ballots for five levels of government (prefect, mayor, rural councilor, rural parish boards, CPCCS representatives). Moreover, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) employed three different electoral systems across these five different offices:
- Prefects: First-past-the-post
- Mayors: First-past-the-post
- Urban and rural canton councils: Free list PR (5 ≤ M ≤ 15)
- Rural parish councils: Free list PR (M=5 or 7)
- CPCCS (three different ballots): Plurality-at-large, Plurality-at-large, First-past-the-post
The free list, which Tom Mustillo and I have written about and which is sometimes called “panachage” or “open ballot”, is a unique variation of the open list where voters can: 1) cast preference votes for candidates; 2) cast multiple preference votes; and 3) distribute preferences across multiple lists. Alternatively, voters can cast a single list vote. To determine seat distribution, votes are pooled at the party list level (an important detail that distinguishes the free list from plurality-at-large). For national legislative elections, only Switzerland, Luxembourg, Honduras, and El Salvador now use this system, although it is more common at a subnational level in Europe. This system presents a number of complexities for voters (since there are so many candidates from which to choose and so many votes to cast) as well as vote counters (because each voter’s number of votes varies by district magnitude and voters are not required to cast all their votes).
There is a lot of “choice” available to voters. Here is a 2019 ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito with M=5 that demonstrates it nicely. Voters in this district are allowed to cast up to five votes within or across the 22 party lists, or five out of 110 total candidates. It is no surprise that voters often opt for list votes (plancha, in Spanish) or use only a portion of their preference votes.
Still, Ecuadorian voters should have been accustomed to the free list: before legislators phased in out in late 2019 in favor of closed lists, voters had been using it for 17 years in both national and local elections.
Being tapped with the civic responsibility of working a polling station is a lot of work for elections like these. Poll workers had to tally votes manually, recording not just the choices on six or seven ballots, but counting all M votes on the free list ballots and finding the three choices on the men’s and women’s CPCCS ballots as well (something I explain in greater depth below). The four-person team at the table I was assigned to “quick count” took more than seven hours to tally all of their 250-300 voters’ votes (see the photo below as they were just beginning).
1. Counting Null Votes under Plurality-at-Large
Despite the complexities of the free list, the most compelling ballot in this election turned out to be the one used to elect CPCCS representatives. After a 2018 plebiscite turned this appointed seven-person body into an elected one, electors were supposed to be given seven votes to be distributed however they wanted across the entire ballot (e.g. plurality-at-large/MNTV/block voting). However, in February 2019, the CNE stipulated that to maintain gender parity and minority representation, it would divide the single ballot into three separate ballots:
- A “men’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large);
- A “women’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large), and;
- A ballot with indigenous/Afro-descendent/ex-pat candidates, from which voters could cast one vote (SMD plurality).
How to count the votes—or in this case, the non-votes—dominated pre-election discourse.
The CPCCS is an autonomous entity responsible for appointing authorities of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Comptroller General of the State, and state superintendencies, as well as influencing the designation of certain electoral and judicial authorities. Many politicians and civil society organizations long decried the CPCCS and argued that it should be eliminated as a political body.
Paragraph 3 of Article 147 of Ecuador’s Code of Democracy states that elections can be nullified, “when the null votes exceed the totality of the candidates’ votes, of the respective lists, in a specific circumscription, for each office”. Predictably, there was a current of public opinion in these elections that exhorted voters to cast a null vote as a way to protest the body and demand a national plebiscite on its existence. However, counting the null votes for an office where the voter can cast up to seven votes between three ballots turned out to be more complicated than it may first appear.
Specifically, there is no way to satisfy the “one person, one vote” principal stipulated in the Ecuadorian Constitution if electoral authorities count votes instead of ballots. There are two basic scenarios:
- Scenario 1 (original proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to a single vote, meaning that a null voter is only able to cast 3/7 of a null vote (1/7 + 1/7 + 1/7 on each of the three ballots) while a valid voter can cast 7/7 of a vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7)—effectively disenfranchising the null voter.
- Scenario 2 (counter-proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to three null votes. This way, both valid and null voters get to exercise a full vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 in each case). The problem is, the system does not permit cumulation voting, which means a) that the null voter is effectively casting three cumulation votes while a valid voter cannot do the same thing; and b) that anyone using fewer than M valid votes per list ends up using fewer votes than the null voter (e.g. a single blank on the first ballot would give the voter 2/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 = 6/7 of a vote).
Electoral authorities were divided on the interpretation, but eventually settled on the first counting rule. Regardless, the null counting method would not have mattered, since just over 20% of the ballots registered null votes against 50% of valid votes (more than 20% of the ballot for CPCCS were also left blank).
2. Personal Voting and Party System Atomization
Low entrance barriers and guaranteed public financing gave rise to the participation of a whopping 278 political parties, movements, and local organizations. However, all three electoral systems also incentivize the personal vote at the expense of the party. The results were predictable, with extreme party system fragmentation and a lack of mandate for most elected officials.
To just take the FPTP elections, 19 different parties and 10 local political movements split up the 23 prefectures (most of them as part of electoral alliances), with the Social Christian Party winning the most with eight (35%). Eight parties or movements won just a single prefecture.
There was greater atomization at the level of the elections for mayor. There, 42 parties or movements gained political representation in the 221 mayoralties. Sixteen different political parties won ten or more mayoralties, with the most successful party, the Social Christian Party, earning just 43 mayoralties nationwide (19.5% of the national total). The largest party in the preceding twelve years, President Lenín Moreno’s Alianza Pais (“Country Alliance”), managed only 27 mayors nationwide, falling to the fourth position at national level. The excess of municipal and provincial movements led to the formation of various electoral alliances; in fact, multi-party electoral coalitions won 112 of the 221 mayoralties.
These results suggest that without significant changes, the 2021 general elections are likely to be contested by a panoply of parties with weak roots and limited national ambitions, akin to what we see in some other Latin American countries, like Peru.
3. Ballot Order Effects
A third interesting pattern to emerge was a ballot order effect for the CPCCS elections. Recognizing the advantage that candidates near the top of the ballot hold over those placed toward the bottom, the CNE decided candidate placement on each of the three CPCCS ballots in February 2019 via lottery, on national television and in the presence of a public notary.
The 28-candidate men’s CPCCS ballot looked like this, with the women’s ballot and minorities’ ballot organized a similar way:
Despite the lottery, which quite literally randomized candidate placement, there is evidence that candidates towards the top of list enjoyed a distinct advantage over those toward the bottom. The figure below is a scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes. Red circles represent women candidates (11 nominations), squares are the men candidates (28 nominations), and the diamonds the minority candidates (4 nominations); for each list, I also included the best fit line to show the relationship between ballot position and votes received. In all three cases, there is a clear negative relationship.
This relationship is statistically significant for two of the three lists (men and women; there were only four candidates on the third list). To test the relationship suggested in the figure, I ran a linear regression of the effect of candidate on electoral performance. Employing list fixed effects, the results are consistent with the scatterplot. For each change in position, the mean CPCCS candidate lost around 18,126 votes (p<0.05), or a total of 507,528 votes (18,126) over the range of the 28 positions on the men’s list. Despite placement randomization, then, this vote is just one more example of the pervasiveness of ballot placement effects; given financial and technical constraints (e.g. inability to randomize candidate placement for each paper ballot), it’s hard to imagine how the CNE could have avoided this problem.
Sectional elections in a small country like Ecuador are not often on the radar of international analysts. However, the multitude of electoral systems, debate over null vote counting, and ballot order effectd make it as compelling a case study as many national elections in larger countries that grab international headlines.