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Chile’s new voting rules may have derailed the new Constitution

Many who voted ‘No’ still want a new constitution — just not this one

High school and university students participate in a march demanding improvements in education and a new constitution in Valparaiso, Chile on Sept. 14. Photo by Adriana Thomasa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (13391220b)
6 min

Earlier this month, just 38 percent of Chileans voted in favor of the country’s new constitution. That’s a significant drop in support from 2020, when 78 percent of voters in an October referendum voted in favor of drafting a new constitution. Why did support for replacing Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution fall by half between 2020 and 2022?

Public opinion soured on the new constitution amid disinformation campaigns and claims that the charter was too leftist. And Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who supported the constitution, has declining approval numbers. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, voters appeared to be more responsive to negative vs. positive information about the constitution.

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But a major shift in election rules also shaped the result. Voting in 2020 was voluntary — but the government announced that voting in 2022 would be compulsory, so turnout jumped from 51 percent to 86 percent. Compulsory voting tilted the scales against the new constitution by boosting turnout among less-interested voters who were more likely to vote for the status quo, and reject the new constitution.

Not all of the turnout boost can be attributed to the compulsory voting rule, of course. The new constitution was likely to fail in any case — but probably not by such dramatic margins.

Chile’s protests help produce a constitutional convention

Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The military regime designed the constitution to consolidate a limited democracy where parties on the right and the military maintained veto power. A number of major changes in 2005 removed some of the most anti-democratic principles, but many shortcomings remained.

In 2019, frustration with Chile’s conservative institutions boiled over, and massive protests erupted across the country after a transit fare hike. The unifying theme was a call for “dignity,” and opposition to the country’s political elites. After a month of turmoil, almost all political parties in Congress agreed to call a referendum on whether Chile should pursue a new constitution.

In October 2020, citizens voted to begin the constitutional process. And in May 2021, voters elected a constitutional convention to draft the new charter, which included gender parity and guaranteed representation for Indigenous people.

Did voter attitudes change?

Some of the decline in support for Chile’s new constitution was perhaps inevitable. It’s easier to amass support for an abstract idea than for a concrete proposal. Once the constitutional convention put forth an actual draft, opponents could criticize the writing process and specific content, like the declaration of Chile as a “plurinational” country.

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And voters were more responsive to negative framings of the constitution than positive ones. A study conducted in Chile in August found that framing the constitution negatively — suggesting it was too extreme and divisive — increased opposition. But framing the constitution in positive terms — suggesting it was a reasonable and consensus-driven document — failed to increase support. This study was conducted via an online Netquest panel of 1,204 respondents, a survey sample designed to be nationally representative.

Trust in the constitutional convention declined amid scandals and a perception that the convention’s work was too polarizing. Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) surveys in 2021 and 2022 show that as the referendum approached, citizens grew more pessimistic about whether the new constitution would improve things, as shown in the figure below.

Why turnout in 2022 would not look like 2020

Alongside declining public opinion, turnout patterns also shifted. The overwhelming support for a constitutional convention in 2020 reflected, in part, an asymmetry in mobilization. Political parties and civil society organizations on the left and center-left were united in favor of drafting a new constitution, while those on the right were divided.

Partisanship is low in Chile, but it still mobilizes voters when parties send clear cues about their preferred outcome. In 2020, left-leaning Chileans reported turning out at far higher rates than right-leaning Chileans, by a 17-point margin. This large ideological gap in reported turnout was unusual for Chile.

But while those on the right were divided over drafting a new constitution in 2020, they were united against it in 2022. The left remained united in favor of the constitution, but the center-left was now divided.

In light of widespread negative attitudes towards political parties, non-governmental organizations formed by citizens took center stage in 2022. Both campaigns made an effort to appeal to moderate and non-ideological voters. Even if voting weren’t mandatory in this month’s referendum, voters probably would have turned out at relatively equal levels across the ideological spectrum — resembling 2017 more than 2020.

Mandatory voting did not help the new constitution

Compulsory voting probably tilted the scales against the new constitution. When voting is voluntary, undecided voters often stay home. But when voting is compulsory, they tend to vote in favor of the status quo — in this case, against adopting a new constitution.

This pattern also helps to explain why polls underestimated the margin of defeat. In the final weeks of campaigning, top-line poll numbers pointed to a victory for the “No” side with a 12-point lead. But the top-line results obscure an important statistic: the number of undecided voters.

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Across these polls, 13 percent of respondents stated that they still didn’t know how they would vote as the referendum approached. If undecided voters broke for the “No” at a four-to-one rate, the polling numbers would line up exactly with the outcome, where 62 percent voted to reject the new constitution.

What’s next for Chile?

Despite the resounding defeat, the process won’t end here. Many who voted “No” want a new constitution — just not this constitution.

In a speech acknowledging the defeat of the constitution he supported, President Boric praised the democratic process and widespread participation. He immediately spoke about a new path forward in the effort to replace Chile’s dictatorship-era charter, focusing on achieving a broader consensus in the next constitutional process. What this process will look like remains to be seen.

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Lautaro Cella (@lautarocella) is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago.

Eli Rau is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Political Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University.