Can think tanks have the cake and eat it too? CIPPEC´s dilemmas in promoting electoral reform in Argentina

17 July 2012

In Argentina, we use the French ballot voting system: each political party prints, distributes and supplies its own ballots during Election Day. The system worked fairly well while there were two main parties of relatively equal in size, territorial outreach and resources. But after the 2001 socioeconomic and political crisis, extreme party fragmentation rendered the voting system archaic, ineffective and inequitable. Ballot proliferation is now so extensive that it is almost impossible to cast an informed vote; ballot theft has become widespread; and the larger parties and incumbents enjoy an important advantage due to greater capabilities for printing, distributing and watching over their ballots.

In the 2007 national election there were numerous accusations of ballot theft and serious shortage of party monitors. As a consequence, opposition parties and civil society organisation began to demand the adoption of the single ballot system. CIPPEC joined the choir. In spite of our claims, the national government continued to be consistently reluctant to consider the change.

Back then, we were completely caught in the incumbents-opposition confrontation dynamics, blended in the civil-society-plus-opposition group.  How could CIPPEC, a think tank, make a difference in advocating for the adoption of the single ballot? How to find a distinctive and more constructive approach? The challenge, we concluded, was to reintroduce the issue in the public agenda with a completely new perspective.  We had to change the terms of the public debate.

We didn’t know at the time that it was the beginning of a road that took us from evidence based advocacy to implementation and evaluation. It has been quite a ride, with no few dilemmas and difficult choices. And it has not ended yet: the National Congress is now discussing a reform to change the voting system and we have been asked to provide a technical opinion for the Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Building the case was relatively easy; we shifted the argument from equity among parties to citizen´s rights. By adopting the single ballot system the State takes on the responsibility to grant every citizen the supply of all electoral options, thus protecting a fundamental political right: the right to choose and be elected. International experience and the specialised literature were on our side. But once we had a solid case, how could we communicate our arguments to inform the public debate in a constructive way? How to translate them for the media? How to make them attractive for our policy community?

CIPPEC´s advocacy for the Australian ballot was made public by disseminating a short document among policy makers and journalists and several op-eds published in the national press. Our citizen-oriented approach to the issue was key to make our voice stand out as distinctive, equanimous and qualified.

We succeeded to positioning ourselves as Australian ballot champions. Which, in turn, lead us to being involved in the implementation of the reform. In December 2010, the province of Santa Fe -the third electoral district in size- introduced the Australian ballot, to be used for the first time in the 2011 provincial primary elections. The governor -the first socialist to run an Argentine province- requested CIPPEC´s support for the implementation of the new voting system. We had mixed emotions –and interests: we were thrilled to be a part of this pioneering experience, but we also knew that there was a considerable risk in getting involved. What would happen if the election went wrong? Would a failed first attempt affect our role of evidence-based champions? We decided to take the risk.

Our journey had one more unexpected twist. The government of Santa Fe requested us to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the single ballot in the provincial general elections. Did it make any sense? Could we stand on both sides of the desk?

Our case study will seek to share, analyse and discuss the various challenges, hazards and choices we had to face as a consequence of involving in the different phases of the policy making process and the different communication tools we used along the way. We will also consider how, if any, different communication and research approaches could have improved this process. For us, it has been a fascinating and extremely educational ride, and we’d like to share it with others.

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book