The State of US Elections – a view from the Andes
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The quality of US elections have taken quite a battering over the past decade. Critics warmed up with the “butterfly ballots” in 2000 Florida where confused electors apparently voted for conservative Pat Buchanan instead of Democrat Al Gore. But they have got most upset with the continuing role of money in elections. Recently, attention has moved to the Super PACs which since June 2010 have been allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money to advocate for a particular candidate. Satirist Stephen Colbert has led the charge against these starting his own Colbert Super PAC, noting “we had a simple dream; to use the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to fashion a massive money cannon that would make all those who seek the White House quake with fear and beg our allegiance…in strict accordance with federal election law.” (See our earlier post here).  As of February 17, 2012, Restore our Future, a Super PAC that supports Mitt Romney, had raised over 30 million dollars dwarfing the amount of money traditional PACs raised for candidates.

There is no reason to be complacent about the quality of US elections or the extent to which their outcomes represent the wishes of the majority of US citizens (and not just the rich ones). But things are much much worse in some other parts of the world. Take as a point of comparison elections in Colombia, one of Latin America’s longest-running democracies. It is indeed true that in the 20th century Colombia avoided the military dictatorships that plagued the rest of the sub-continent. National governments are elected via elections in Colombia. But not all is rosy with these elections, which, right up to the present, have been marred by extreme levels of fraud and violence.

In 1985 a new “left-wing” (in inverted commas because as we’ll see a later post that ideological concepts are elusive in Colombia) party the Patriot Union (UP) was formed as part of an attempt by the government to reach a peaceful accord with one of the “left-wing” guerilla armies. But starting a new political party in Colombia is a fraught business. Within a few years the party was wiped out, not by electoral defeat, but by assassination. Probably 3,000 members and activists were killed, including two presidential candidates Jaime Pardo Leal and Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa. (See the account by US journalist Steven Dudley in Walking Ghosts).

The most recent flourishing of electoral anarchy in Colombia was in 2002. In the period up to this national paramilitary groups formed a coalition with politicians from all parties to engage in massive coercion and fraud. They even had a meeting in the town of Sante Fé de Ralito in the department of Córboda where paramilitary leaders like Adolfo Paz (real name Diego Murillo), Jorge 40 (Rodrigo Tovar), Santander Losada (Salvatore Mancuso) and Diego Vecino (Eduardo Cobos), met with prominent national politicians including Senators William Montes and Miguel de la Espriella and signed a pact to “re-found the country”. Here is part of the pact with their signatures:

                                   Re-founding the country at Sante Fé de Ralito

They almost succeeded. In the 2002 elections for Senate and Congress possibly 1/3 of the legislators were elected with the active support of paramilitaries coercing people into voting in particular ways. In the municipality of San Onofre in the coastal department of Sucre, for example, this was arranged by the paramilitary leader ‘Cadena’ who instructed people that they had to vote for Jairo Merlano for the Senate and Muriel Benito for the House of Representatives. As the national newspaper El Tiempo recorded: 

“ ‘Cadena’ put in a bag all the names of the councilors, he took two and said that he was going to kill them and other people chosen randomly if Muriel did not win,” says a peasant from this town. The threat seems to have been effective: each candidate obtained 40,000 votes in Sucre.”

Unsuprisingly, the mayor and ex-mayor of San Onofre were both signatories of the Pact of Santa Fé de Ralito. 

But Colombian institutions are not so easily overthrown, and in the middle of the extractive political institutions engulfing the country there are also inclusive elements. The Colombian Liberal politician Darío Echandía used to say that Colombian politics was like “an orangutan dressed in a tuxedo”. In 2002 the orangutan was ontop, but the tuxedo, in the form of the Supreme Court, fought back. It arrested politicians accused of having links with paramilitaries and put them on trial. At the same time President Álvaro Uribe was intensifying the war against the “left-wing” guerillas of the FARC and the ELN and negotiating a demobilization of the paramilitary forces. The combination of these two policies led to dramatically falling homicide rates. So much so that there is now a chorus praising Colombia as an “emerging economy,” a sort of beacon for the rest of the region (see, e.g., here).

But how is it that paramilitaries took over 1/3 of Colombia in the late 1990s without anyone apparently noticing? And has this all changed? If you want to understand this issue you’d do well to spend some time at the audiencias which are currently taking place in Bogotá where the ex paramilitary leaders are being confronted with their crimes as part of their demobilization under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law. The evidence and testimony is remarkable and tells a tale of how the Colombian state has been content for decades, probably ever since independence in 1819, to allow rural people to fend for themselves at the prey of whichever group has the most guns until you yourself pick up a gun to defend yourself and your family. When a magistrate asked the paramilitary leader Ramón Isaza if he had been asked by politicians to intervene in fixing elections Isaza answered, straight faced, “no but in certain municipalities, like Cocorná, where there were no police, we had to intervene to make sure the elections proceeded in an orderly way”. The presence of the police is of course a mixed blessing. In San Francisco, across the main Bogotá-Medellín road from Cocorná there was a police station but there, Isaza explained, the police had “provided a list of all the people who we should kill.” Indeed the state is often either absent or a menace in Colombia as witnessed by the recent “false positives” scandal where the national army murdered possibly 3,000 innocent civilians for pay rises and holidays. 

So here is an electoral world far removed from Super PACs and butterfly ballots where the elections are routinely fixed and sometimes even organized by paramilitaries; a world where the police can put you on a hit list (actually a world where the army may murder you for a pay rise as we’ll discuss in a later post). There are many who struggle against the orangutan in Colombia, but the nature of Colombian elections has scarcely changed. In the local elections of October 2011, far from the high stakes of those for the president, Senate and Congress, 41 candidates were murdered.


Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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