The new voting rules

El Salvador has national elections approaching on March 11.   Salvadorans will be going to the polls to elect mayors and to elect deputies to the National Assembly.   The rules have changed this year as a result of decisions by the Salvadoran constitutional court.   For the first time, independent candidates can run for election to the National Assembly.  Also for the first time, voters can express their preferences for individual candidates from the slate assembled by a particular party.

Here's a review of the changed process.  Each department within the country is allocated a certain number of seats in the 84 seat National Assembly according to its population. So, for example, the populous San Salvador department has 25 deputies and the less populous San Miguel department has 6 deputies.

Each seat in the department has a vote quota equal to the total number of votes cast in the department divided by the number of seats. To use round numbers, if 1 million votes were cast in San Salvador department to allocate 25 seats, the quota would be 40,000 (1 million / 25). A political party would then receive one seat in the National Assembly for each 40,000 votes it receives. So, in our example, if ARENA received 400,000 votes, it would receive 10 seats in the National Assembly from San Salvador.

Under the prior system, the voters could not vote for individual deputies; they voted only for the political party. The ballot for deputies to the National Assembly was simply a series of party logos, and the voter marked the logo of the party for whom he wishes to elect deputies to the National Assembly.

The parties would develop their slate of deputies for each department, and rank those deputies from 1 to the total number elected in the department (25 in San Salvador for example). If the FMLN won sufficient votes for 12 seats, the top 12 names on its list become the deputies. There were no independent candidates.

Under the new system, voters will be able to vote for individual party candidates and for independent candidates, but with a series of limitations that the parties in the National Assembly adopted to minimize the impact of the court rulings which opened up the vote.

Here's what an example ballot looks like:

You can mark your ballot in several ways:
  • Mark the banner of one party
  • Mark the pictures of one or more candidates from the same party
  • Mark the banner of one party and mark the pictures of one or more candidates of that same party
  • Mark the picture of one independent candidate
Your ballot is void and will not be counted if you vote in any of these ways:
  • Mark the pictures of candidates in more than one party
  • Mark the banners of more than one party
  • Mark the banner of one party and a candidate in a different party
  • Mark an independent candidate and mark any other candidate or banner
  • Mark two or more independent candidates
You can see if you follow these rules by practicing with an online voting game which the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) created at this link.

Remember that there are two allocations being made by these votes.   First -- of the available seats in a department, how many are allocated to each party.   Second -- of the seats which a party won, which candidates will fill those seats.   Voting for an individual on a party ticket allows the voters choose how to allocate the seats a party wins, rather than the party leadership.  

With respect to independent candidates, as I understand it, they will get a seat in the Assembly if they receive at least the number of votes equal to the share for one deputy.   To return to our example of the 25 deputies in San Salvador, a independent candidate must receive at least 1/25th of the total votes cast in order to win a seat.

It's confusing, and much more complicated than the prior system of simply putting an "X" on your favorite party flag.   Unfortunately, as of today, the TSE has not started a campaign to provide voter information about these changes.   ContraPunto describes internal squabbles within the TSE blocking the start of an information campaign.   With some 40% of Salvadorans saying they do not know about these election changes, and probably a higher percentage not knowing the rules for casting a valid ballot, various civil society organizations are trying to start an educational effort to fill the void left by the TSE.

I'm predicting some chaotic situations on election day.   There will be a much larger number of void ballots than in prior elections and many disputes at the election tables as the votes are counted that night.

Look for much more coverage of the elections in the coming weeks.


David said…
Tim, this is almost right. The system of "residuos" is still in place, which means that a party can obtain a legislative seat without reaching the electoral quota in that district.

For example, if the electoral quota is 40,000 to get a seat, and ARENA has 60,000; the FMLN has 40,000 and the CD has 22,000. ARENA gets one seat, but also has 20,000 residual votes. FMLN gets one seat. CD -- even though they don't get 40,000 -- has a higher number of votes than ARENA's residual number (22k vs 20k), so they get the third seat.

In the past, the PCN was expert at gaming the system, and I believe 10 of 11 seats (don't remember the precise number) were earned through residual votes.

In the new system, who knows how this will turn out? We have lots of new parties, but some think that GANA has enough money and field presence to potentially substitute for the PCN and earn a number of seats.

If you have a super-popular independent candidate, and people understand that they can only vote for that person and not for a party as well (which remains to be seen), then you could get some independent candidates in there as well.
This fits in very well with the tried and true Salvadoran tradition of trying to disqualify as many of the other parties' ballots as possible.
Carlos X. said…
No wonder President Funes joked (?) with reporters that, "Not even I know how to vote!"
Wayne said…
I'm not entirely convinced Funes was joking! I've heard the same complaint from other government officials from all ranks.
Dave Kinnear said…
Wow, I just tried the voting simulator that you linked. After reading your explanation, I still needed several tries before I could reliably produce a valid ballot. What chance does a typical Salvadoran without easy internet access have to figure this out?
Ronnie said…
At firs, the new voting system does seem a bit confusing. However, if the intructions are reviewed slowly and carefully a couple of times you will notice it is not complicated at all. This is a new and improved system which has taken voters by surprise. The old system was very simpre, it implied only marking a flag, which is why Salvadoreans were having trouble understanding the new system. I do not believe that President Funes lacked any knowledge on how the system worked. To me he was just expressing the constituents frustration to the TSE because they were confused. In return, the TSE launched an extensive campaign education Salvadoreans on how to vote under the new sytem. I was in El Salvador during the elcetion season and their campagin was a successful one. Salvadoreans did not need to have acces to computers to learn how to vote. The TSE ads were made availble through telelvision, newspaper, radio, fliers, kiosk and through the candidates themselves. At the end of the day, I believe the new system is an adequate one, which marks an advancement in the democratic transition of El Salvador.