The Electoral System

Colombia Table of Contents

In order to vote, a citizen must register at the municipal level. In the late 1980s, voting requirements were not strict, but registration was still difficult and confusing, especially for those who had moved, as a result of complicated residency requirements. Individuals voted at places designated by the municipal registrar on the basis of their identification numbers. Therefore, the many citizens who had moved to another neighborhood, town, or city had to return to their original place of registration in order to cast a ballot.

Presidential elections in Colombia are held by direct popular vote every four years in April of even-numbered years. A plurality is sufficient to elect a president. Congressional elections also take place every four years. Beginning in 1978, they have been held two or three months prior to the presidential ballot and conducted in accordance with a system of proportional representation. Colombian political observers commonly viewed congressional and local government elections as primaries for the forthcoming presidential vote. The candidate whose supporters won the largest number of seats usually became the party's presidential nominee.

Elections for the delegates to the departmental and municipal assemblies are held every two years. In presidential voting years, they are conducted shortly after the presidential elections. In nonpresidential voting years, they serve as mid-term elections (mitacas).

An electoral committee composed of two members from each party supervises the municipal ballot at each polling place. This committee reports the results to the municipal registrar's office, which then forwards them to the national registrar's office. The vote count is also overseen by a guarantees tribunal appointed by the president and consisting of the minister of government, the minister of communications, the national civic registrar, the national director of criminal rehabilitation, the director general of the National Police, and delegates from the political party leadership.

High voter abstention rates have been the norm in Colombia since universal male suffrage was adopted in the 1930s. This pattern was particularly evident in elections under the National Front agreement. Voter participation declined from 69 percent of those eligible to vote in the 1958 presidential elections to 37 percent in the 1966 elections. In the crucial 1974 elections--when both parties fielded candidates for the presidency for the first time in over thirty years--only 45 percent of those eligible voted. Despite the end of the National Front, only 20 percent of the voters went to the polls in the 1976 elections, when the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. Colombian leftist observers argued that the 1978 abstention rate of 39 percent clearly reflected widespread rejection of the traditional parties, despite the renewal of interparty competition. Scholars also attributed Colombia's traditionally high abstention rates to apathy, to noncompulsory voting, and to bureaucratic obstacles, such as inconvenient residency requirements.

Voter participation in presidential elections showed relative increases in the 1980s. About half of the electorate participated in the 1982 and 1986 presidential elections. Although 61 percent of voters participated in the 1986 municipal elections, only 48 percent cast their ballots in the March 1988 local voting. By the mid-1980s, the highest abstention rates in urban areas were among the poor, who had tended not to be affiliated with either major party.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress