What Do Elections Mean in a Non-Democratic Regime? 

Or Why Bother to Vote When the Elections Are Not Fair?

By Jennifer McCoy


Jennifer McCoy, PhD, is Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. She served as Founding Director of the Global Studies Institute at GSU (2015-16), and Director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program 1998-2015, leading projects on democratic strengthening, mediation and dialogue, and hemispheric cooperation. A specialist on democratization and polarization, mediation and conflict prevention, election processes and election observation, and Latin American politics, Dr. McCoy has authored or edited six books and dozens of articles. Her latest book is International Mediation in Venezuela (with Francisco Diez, 2011). She teaches courses on comparative democratization, international norms, and Latin American politics.


Democracy is a system to peacefully manage the natural differences of interests and identities in a society. Elections are a fundamental element of democracy. They are the mechanism for citizens to choose representatives to govern the country for a specified period of time, ideally based on clear information about the various proposals the candidates put forward. Sometimes, though, a political party or group will use restricted elections to legitimize their stay in power, rather than to subject themselves to the periodic review of the people. Venezuela is in this situation today. In this article, I discuss the meaning of voting in electoral processes that have experienced a severe deterioration. I argue that even when elections appear “rigged” to determine a winner, there can be strategic reasons to participate in order to change the larger political game.

From his first election in 1998, Hugo Chávez valued the legitimacy of receiving a mandate from the people in electoral contests. Although these elections became increasingly unfair, using ventajismo to give unfair advantages to the governing party, the integrity of the vote count was achieved with the implementation of the automated voting system. Electoral guarantees included the participation of all of the political parties in audits and controls to be able to validate the results of the election. The results of the election were in turn respected, and the candidates who won were allowed to take office.

Beginning in 2016, with Nicolás Maduro in power, the government changed the basic rules of the game dramatically when the CNE suspended the constitutional right to petition for a recall referendum and postponed the regional elections. Then in 2017 the government held a vote for an entity of questionable constitutional legitimacy – the ANC, and for the first time did not even bother to follow the rule of “one citizen, one vote” in its formulas to elect representatives to the ANC. With the opposition boycotting, the government was free to invent numbers and relax the automatic voting system, with only the technical advisory company of Smartmatic capable of denouncing the results.

The October 2017 regional elections further signaled that the government was willing to resort to more explicitly fraudulent and repressive measures to hold onto power. First, the Maduro government refused to install the winner of an election for the first time since the inception of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999. Both Chávez and Maduro had at one point or another usurped the power of elected bodies by naming parallel authorities or removed officials based on (dubious) allegations of electoral fraud. But when the government ousted the announced governor-elect of Zulia because he refused to participate in a swearing-in ceremony before the ANC, it went a step further and openly flouted the voters’ will.

Second, the government appeared to engage in manipulation of the vote count for the first time in a regularly scheduled contested election (not counting the July ANC vote). Until now, most of the demonstrated voting irregularities were aimed at influencing those who voted and how they did so, but the voting machines withstood audits measuring the integrity of their count. On October 15 in the state of Bolívar, at least 11 voting machine results were entered by hand, rather than electronically transmitted, appearing to change the winner in that state race.

Given this scenario, are elections still worthwhile? In an electoral authoritarian regime, which holds manipulated elections to claim a democratic legitimacy while ensuring that the incumbent will win, the game is a two-level one. Opponents must participate in each election, with the chance they might overwhelm the manipulations and actually win, while also working to change the rules of the larger political game.

Even with extremely unfavorable conditions, opposing political parties managed in the past to win elections for important mayorships, governorships and legislative majorities. Independents and smaller parties have registered to run in the December 10 municipal elections, and this provides an opportunity for Venezuelan civil society to monitor, document and denounce irregularities. It may not change the outcomes, but participation and systematic documentation can unmask and delegitimize the government’s attempted democratic veneer if it resorts to fraud and repression.

There is a great temptation to boycott unfair elections, since it is unlikely anyone other than government-designated candidates can win, and opponents fear legitimizing an unfair process. That is the decision that the larger opposition parties in fact made. But boycotting unfair elections simply delivers all power to the governing party. Such a power hand-off exacts no cost to the victor, but demands a high price from the opposition and its supporters in losing local control of resources, police forces and permissions for protests. It is therefore better to participate and force the government to compete than to allow the government to win with no effort. Unmasking fraud and intimidation, in turn, provides leverage to demand a change in the larger political game.

Presidential elections are expected in 2018. The opposition has put fair elections on the negotiating. In the meantime, citizens should vote and civil society should monitor, document and denounce irregularities, to provide more leverage to press for change and to inform citizens and concerned foreign observers alike about the conditions in Venezuela.

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