Historians have characterized nineteenth-century Latin America as a period when caudillismo or authoritarian oligarchies predominated and little real democratic development occurred. While many constitutions were written and many elections were held, the letter of the law was rarely obeyed and, operating under various restrictions and constraints, voters rarely determined political outcomes. The essays in this collection aim to suggest a greater complexity to this general picture. As elections and voting in Latin America have again become important, this volume appears at a particularly propitious time.

A collaboration by European, Latin American, and North American scholars, the collection covers national and regional units intermixed with specific case studies of particular localities. The scope is considerable, with specific emphasis on Mexico, Brazil, the Andean region, and the Río de la Plata area. Perhaps a future volume could include some of the areas not covered, notably Chile and Colombia.

The organizers clearly took care to impose a common structure on the individual essays and to avoid undue overlap. Most of the essays discuss the impact of external events and influences, notably the Spanish liberal constitution of 1812, the role of the press, the legal definition of citizenship, the nature of electoral laws in each region, the composition of the electorate, and the workings of the elections themselves. All the essays draw heavily on basic archival research and, although parts of some contributions have appeared in other publications, as a whole the volume contains much that is fresh and original.

Certain findings may surprise some readers. In many of the regions, provisions for voting allowed for rather extensive participation by freed blacks (in the case of Brazil) and Indians (in the cases of Mexico and the Andean nations). As the nineteenth century progressed, restrictions were added to eliminate these groups from the rolls. Voter registry information for the cities of Buenos Aires and São Paulo suggests that a significant portion of the late nineteenth-century electorate in these areas came from the lower orders of society, belying the general image of an elite-dominated electorate. A larger proportion of the total population than has been assumed, moreover, perhaps as much as 10 percent, was eligible to vote during much of the nineteenth century.

Whatever the size or composition of the electorate or the frequency of elections, however, as the contributors recognize, the outcome was almost uniformly the same: elections that were tightly controlled by the ruling elite to produce results that favored their interests. Fraud, manipulation, and intimidation were the rule rather than the exception. Whatever the size of the eligible electorate, turnout was usually very low. The fundamental bases of the standard picture of the nineteenth century, therefore, are little shaken by this volume. What these essays do provide, however, is a much more nuanced and detailed analysis and description of the nineteenth-century struggle for electoral democracy than has been available up to this time. Anyone interested in Latin America’s nineteenth-century political history and the background to the democratic developments of the twentieth century will want to consult this valuable collection.