CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Transparency and Accountability in Legislatures

By Ludovico Feoli

On June 27, 2011, Costa Rican newspaper La Nación reported a series of reform initiatives launched by party leaders in the legislature to improve the body’s efficiency. The paper highlighted a statement by the Assembly’s president calling for the establishment of a recorded public voting system. Unlike in the United State, where voting records are the long-established mechanism for representative accountability, such systems tend to be rare in Latin America, even in Costa Rica, one of the region’s longest standing democracies.

Why this is so relates to technological and procedural barriers to recording and publishing votes, but as technological barriers have been diminishing there is a growing impetus across the region for procedural reforms. Procedural barriers to vote recording vary broadly across countries. According to John Carey1, only four chambers (the Chilean House and Senate, the Nicaraguan and Peruvian Congresses) establish electronic voting as the default procedure. Five more that have electronic voting systems request a threshold of 10% of members or less to take a nominal vote (the Argentine and Brazilian House, the Panamanian Congress, and both Mexican houses). Among the remaining 12 chambers without electronic systems, 7 set a majority request threshold to record votes.

Carey reports a remarkable connection between procedural obstacles and the number of votes actually recorded in legislatures: chambers with electronic voting as the standard average 459 votes recorded per year; chambers with electronic systems but where recorded votes must be requested by some threshold of legislators average 153 votes; and where voting is manual and recorded votes must be requested, the average is about 2. In Costa Rica, which is among the cases requiring a majority to register a nominal vote, the average over 33 years is a meager 0.5 votes recorded yearly. Is it likely that the country might transition to the type of accountability postulated by Congressional leaders in the cited article?

The empirical evidence offered by Carey shows that the incentives for visible voting are influenced by a combination of system and individual-level factors. At the system level, electoral rules determine the incentives faced by legislative candidates to emphasize voting records in campaigns. These incentives are largest in systems with winner-take-all single-member districts. In multi-member districts the electoral benefit of disseminating opponent voting records is diluted among other members of the party list. Closed lists and high district magnitude exacerbate this problem. Since Costa Rica has all three characteristics–closed lists in relatively high magnitude multi-member districts–conditions at the system level are not favorable to greater vote visibility.

At the individual level support for visible voting will depend on the relative cost and benefit faced by political actors. Party leaders, as legislative insiders, are well placed to monitor voting at a low cost, so they will have little interest in formal recording mechanisms. Moreover, because the exposure of internal rifts has the potential of compromising their authority and competence as leaders they will favor the availability of less information, not more. However, opposition leaders might find that pursuing more visible voting is to their political advantage. They might, for example, use it to force greater accountability on the dominant faction. Individual legislators could also favor visible voting as a mechanism to resist pressure from party leaders. It is precisely with respect to these two counts that conditions are currently most favorable for the Costa Rican reformists.

On May 1, a coalition of opposition parties wrested control of the legislative directorate away from the party in government. Because this group is not ideologically coherent and it lacks a common policy agenda, it is especially well positioned to promote procedural reforms. By doing so it can instill political damage on the government, forestalling its policy priorities, while at the same time staking a claim for reformism. Given the low standing of political parties and the legislature in public opinion polls, the opposition coalition could derive considerable political capital from taking the high ground with a visible campaign to improve transparency and accountability.

On the other hand, the government’s legislative party block (PLN) has been beset by factionalism and internal dissent. The president, forced to distance herself politically from the Arias administration–in which she served as vice-president–to claim an independent political legacy, does not command the loyalty of all her deputies. This has complicated the coordination of relations with the legislature, prompting the resignation of the Minster of the Presidency and facilitating the debacle that culminated in the loss of the directorate on May 1. Under such conditions individual legislators may have a greater incentive to assert their independence from the party leadership, favoring more visual voting to the degree that it allows them to do so.

Recorded voting broadens the ambit of the political process by increasing transparency and exposing legislators to pressures from a larger number of external actors, to which they become accountable. An ancillary effect is that it weakens the influence of party leaders, at a potential cost to party discipline. The leaders of governing parties will therefore resist it. But the promise of greater accountability has broad appeal, particularly where party government has a tarnished reputation, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with legislative institutions. As these are the conditions currently characterizing Costa Rica, the reformist efforts announced by legislators could face an auspicious climate. Success will ultimately depend on their ability to rally support for increased accountability among sectors of public opinion, the press, academics, and civil society. In pushing for recorded voting they are heading in the direction of the regional trend.

[1] Legislative Voting and Accountability, Cambridge University Press, 2009.


  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research