Last year, the Chilean National Congress modernized the electoral system, automatically registering all qualified residents to vote and making voting itself voluntary. Previously, registering to vote was optional, but once you registered, voting was obligatory, with fines of up to $224 for registered voters who didn’t show up at the polls. The threat of fines kept many people from registering. The law, which went into effect on January 31, 2012, increased voter rolls by 55 percent. It also established mixed-gender voting tables for the recently incorporated voters. However, the archaic practice of gender-segregated polling sites remains in place for the majority of the population.
The practice of segregating the polls was set early in Chilean history. Women gained the right to vote in 1934, but only in local elections and only at gender-segregated polling stations. This partial recognition of women’s political rights remained unchanged for 14 years. During that time, women did not have the right to vote for presidential candidates or congressional representatives nor to be elected to those offices. In January of 1949, Congress amended the general electoral law to allow women to fully participate in presidential and congressional elections. However, the new law upheld the custom of separate polling tables for men and women.
Some people have argued that separate polls are necessary in order to track voting trends by gender. Given the technological developments of the 21st century, this explanation is no longer convincing. New technologies are available that record all kinds of voting behaviors. If the government is unable to publically provide this information, something else must explain its lack of motivation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the government is facing monetary constraints, since it was able to increase the number of voting sites by approximately 10 percent to accommodate the 5,292,285 newly enfranchised voters participating in the mayoral elections that were held across the country on November 27, 2012.
A more suitable explanation is found in the normalizing power of law and custom. Most Chilean voters are not even surprised that men and women vote at different sites. If asked about this peculiarity of the electoral system, Chileans frequently argue that it is in place for safety reasons. Interestingly, few think about the statistical challenge mentioned above. More surprisingly the subject of segregated voting tables does not seem to be a matter of concern. The discussion after the mayoral elections revolved around the high level of absentees. No one — even at the most progressive newspapers — paid attention to this particular change in the law.
Below the surface, the existence of this practice reinforces the division between women and men. It serves to remind women of their past lack of voting rights and of the fact that, even today, they are perceived to be unable to vote safely unless they are separate from men. Despite this outcome, there is no political representative who is even talking about this practice, nor can I foresee any changes in the future. This outdated custom shows that, in Chile, the discussion about women’s rights is still in diapers!
Mayra Feddersen is a second-year student in the Berkeley Law School’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy doctoral program.
This post is originally published on Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley. It is cross-posted with permission.