Legislative Malapportionment and Economic Outcomes:
A First Assessment
Miriam Bruhn Francisco Gallego Massimiliano Onorato
This Version: July 2008
First Version: June 2007
(Preliminary - Not complete)
This paper addresses the issue of the endogenous choice and persistence of legislative
malapportionment and analyzes its economic consequences. Legislative malapportionment denotes
a wide discrepancy between the share of legislative seats and the share of population held by
electoral districts. We first document that countries with higher lower chamber malapportionment
have lower GDP per capita. The same relationship holds in a panel dataset for 11 Latin American
countries. We then investigate the mechanism behind this correlation, drawing on the political
economy literature which suggests that pre-democracy elites manipulate democracy to preserve
their power. We argue that legislative malapportionment enhances the elites? de jure political
influence by over-representing specific areas. This biased political representation survives in
equilibrium as long as it helps democratic consolidation. At the same time, it reduces political
competition and distorts public policies, hampering economic development. Our empirical evidence
from regions within Latin American countries supports this theoretical framework. We find that
overrepresented electoral districts have a higher share of delegates from parties close to the pre-
democracy ruling groups and also that overrepresented states receive more transfers per capita from
the central government. Moreover, in the panel dataset for 11 Latin American countries, higher
malapportionment increases the probability of democratic consolidation.
Keywords: democracy, dictatorship, de jure power, institutions, Latin America, persistence,
JEL Classification: H1, N46, N10, P16, P48.
Miriam Bruhn, The WorldBank, Washington DC, USA. email: email@example.com
Francisco Gallego, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Department of Economics and Economic History and
Cliometrics Laboratory,, Santiago, Chile. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Massimiliano Onorato, Bocconi University, Milano, Italy. email: email@example.com
We thank Daron Acemoglu, John Londregan, Nathan Nunn, James Robinson, Guido Tabellini, and participants in
seminars at Yale University and the Catholic University of Chile for comments, Felipe Joannon, Piero Montebruno,
Francisco Muñoz and Diego Verdugo for excellent reserach assistance , We are also grateful to the Millenium Nuclei
Research in Social Sciences, Planning Ministry (MIDEPLAN), Republic of Chile and Fondecyt (Grant # 11070181), for
financial support. The usual disclaimer applies.
“The rules of the game in a society or, more formally […] the humanely devised constraints that
shape human interaction, […] structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social or
economic”. North (1990, pg.3),
A broad and relatively recent literature investigates the effect of legal and political
institutions on long-run economic development. In a series of seminal papers, Acemoglu, Johnson
and Robinson (2001, 2002 and 2006) document that differences in institutions can lead to long-run
differences in income across countries. Rodrick, Trebbi and Subramain (2004) provide additional
evidence that institutions are more relevant than geography and trade policies in explaining income
differences around the world. Related to the evidence on the economic consequences of institutions
is the work by Persson and Tabellini (2006a, 2006b, and 2007), which investigates the effect of
democracy on economic growth and several policy outcomes.
Overall, several papers have pointed to the economic relevance of a “cluster” of legal and
political institutions, but there is still relatively little empirical work aimed at understanding the
effect of specific institutions on policy choices and economic outcomes1. In their analysis of the
economic consequences of democracy, Persson and Tabellini (2006 a) point out that democracy is
still “too blunt a concept”. Democratic regimes can come in different forms, with different
constitutional arrangements and institutions, implying that a more detailed look at these aspects is
necessary to better asses the impact of democratic institutions on policies and growth2.
Our paper contributes to this literature by shedding light on the political and economic
consequences of a specific feature of democratic regimes, namely the apportionment of the number
of parliamentary representatives to each electoral district. The motivation for analysing legislative
malapportionment is as follows. Many constitutions explicitly state that electoral districts should be
appointed with a share of representatives that corresponds to their respective share of the national
population in order to guarantee de jure the equality of each citizen?s vote. Legislative
malapportionment arises whenever there is a discrepancy between the share of legislative seats and
the share of population held by each electoral district. Since malapportionment implies that the vote
of all citizens is not counted equally, it represents a violation of a core democratic principle. This in
1 One example of this type of work is Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), which disentangles the effect of “property
rights” and “contracting” institutions on long run growth, investment, and financial development. They find that
property rights institutions have a first order impact on all the economic outcomes they consider, while contracting
institutions matter only for financial development. Gallego (2008) follows a similar approach to distinguish between the
effect of general and local democracy on schooling. His results imply that the overall democratic framework influences
the basic levels of schooling - such as primary schooling - while local democracy mainly influences more advanced
levels of schooling (for instance, secondary and higher education).
2 Acemoglu (2005) discusses the idea of unbundling institutions in the general context of comparative political
turn can have a first order effect on political competition and resource allocation and thus on
economic development. Moreover, in contrast to other institutional arrangements of democracies,
such as clientelist policies, malapportionment is clearly defined and measurable, making it possible
to analyse its economic consequences empirically.
We begin our analysis by documenting a negative and statistically significant correlation
between GDP per capita and lower chamber malapportionment in a simple cross-country
regression, which is robust to the inclusion of several control variables (Figure 1). This finding does
not prove a casual effect of malapportionment on economic development since the relationship
could be driven by omitted variables or reserve causality. Nevertheless, it motivates us to further
explore a possible casual effect of legislative malapportionment on economic development. We
then provide additional evidence for this negative relationship from a panel of 11 Latin American
countries going from the late XIX century to the present. We also show that legislative
malapportionment has a stronger negative relationship with income per capita for countries with a
higher level of income inequality before their transition to democracy. As a further step in our
research, we plan to rely on historical information about the origins of malapportionment in order to
use an instrumental variable approach to properly assess its impact on economic development.
This paper then provides a political economy rationale for the emergence and persistence of
legislative malapportionment to explore the mechanism behind the correlations depicted in Figure
1. We base this rationale on Acemoglu and Robinson?s (2006) argument that, at the time of
transition to democracy, groups holding political power have strong incentives to manipulate the
newly established political institutions, in order to protect their political and economic interests. We
claim that legislative malapportionment provides these groups with a way of enhancing their de jure
power by over representing specific geographical areas and favoring specific political parties versus
others. This skewed political representation survives in equilibrium as long as it makes democratic
consolidation more likely. At the same time, it reduces political competition and distorts public
policies, which is why legislative malapportionment hampers economic development.
We provide empirical evidence from Latin America supporting this theoretical argument.
Our panel dataset for 11 Latin American countries shows that higher legislative malapportionment
makes democratic consolidation more likely, perhaps because it helps to safeguard the interests of
the groups that held political power in the pre–transition regime. Within country regressions for 15
Latin American countries show that overrepresented electoral districts have a higher share of
delegates from parties close to the pre-democracy ruling groups. Moreover, even though these
districts appear to be wealthier, they receive a larger amount of transfers per capita from the central
government. This last finding goes against the insights from traditional models of redistributive
politics and confirms that unequal representation often translates into higher ability to gain
The paper is organized follows. Section 2 provides a short discussion of malapportionment
and develops our theoretical argument for the emergence and persistence of legislative
malapportionment. It also outlines the possible channels through which legislative
malapportionment could affect political and economic outcomes. Section 3 describes the data we
use for the empirical analysis. Section 4 presents the empirical approach and main results. Section 5
2. Malapportionment and Motivating theory
This section first discusses several general features of malapportioment. It then lays out our
theoretical argument for the origins and economic causes of malapportionment.
A long standing literature in political science identifies malapportionment as a formal and
often deliberate “pathology of electoral systems” (Taagepera and Shugart, 1989; Snyder and
Samuels, 2004). Malapportionment – a wide discrepancy between the share of legislative seats and
the share of population held by electoral districts – represents a violation of the “one person, one
vote” principle that authors like Robert Dahl (1971, 1989) consider to be a basic pillar of fair
democratic regimes. This principle is formally guaranteed by several constitutional charts, but in
many cases it has been simply disregarded or implemented only after judicial intervention3. Upper
chamber malapportionment in federal countries with a bicameral system can be justified
theoretically as long as it guarantees an equal representation of all geographic areas regardless of
their population. Nevertheless, there is no a priori or normative justification for lower chamber
malapportionment, which we focus on in this paper.
Legislative malapportionment can arise spontaneously over time due to migration or
different regional patterns of population growth. Western European and North American
democracies typically have low levels of malapportionment since they periodically reapportion the
number of seats attributed to electoral districts in response to these demographic changes (Snyder
and Samuels, 2004). On the other hand, the data from Samuels and Snyder (2001) and Snyder and
Samuels (2004) reported in Tables 1 and 2, suggest that many of the countries affected by
legislative malapportionment are newly established or consolidating democracies, implying
3 With two verdicts, Baker v. Carr in 1962 and Wesberry v. Sanders in 1964, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of
redesigning electoral districts since they were characterized by high levels of malapportionment. The Supreme Court?s
motivation for these sentences was the necessity to safeguard the “one man, one vote” principle (see Casper, 1973).
democratic regimes can also start out with high levels of malapportionment. It therefore seems
unlikely that malapportionment is only due to medium to long-run phenomena such as migration
and differential patterns of regional demographic change. In addition, the evidence from Latin
America reported in Table 2 suggests that malapportionment not only characterizes democracies
around the time of their establishment, but that it tends to persist over time in some countries4.
Snyder and Samuels (2004) provide detailed historical information about the origin and
evolution of malapportionment in some Latin American countries. They document that the military
dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil increased malapportionment just before the transition to
democracy (1983 in Argentina, 1982 in Brazil) to further over-represent conservative areas. In
Chile, the Pinochet regime (1973 - 1990) behaved in a similar manner. Before the country
transitioned to democracy, the electoral system was redesigned in order to guarantee the over-
representation of areas with more conservative political tendencies. As a consequence, in Argentina
provinces accounting for 31% of the population control 44% of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
In Brazil regions that correspond to 42% of the population control 51% of lower chamber seats and
in Chile districts with 35% of the population are allocated 50% of lower chamber seats.
2.1 Motivating Theory
The basic theoretical argument in this paper builds on the model of transition to democracy
developed by Acemoglu and Robinson (2006). We rely on the main insights of this model to study
(i) the origins of malapportionment, (ii) the persistence of malapportionment, and (iii) the
mechanisms through which malapportionment affects development.
The framework for transition to democracy provided by Acemoglu and Robinson (2006)
highlights how elite groups that hold power in dictatorships can manipulate de jure or de facto
democratic institutions in order to preserve their political and economic interests. Acemoglu and
Robinson?s model assumes the existence of two groups: (i) an “elite”, the richest fraction of the
population that holds political power during a dictatorship and (ii) the “citizens”, the poorest
fraction of the population. They also assume the existence of incomplete contracts in the political
sphere. Citizens can threaten the elite with revolution if they do not receive enough income
transfers5. In this set-up, redistributive policies are only sustainable and credible if the elite transfer
some political power to the citizens.
4 Snyder and Samuels (2004) report that, among the Latin American countries listed in Table 3, only Colombia,
Uruguay and Venezuela do not have formal constitutional provisions that guarantee the “one citizen- one vote”
principle. The remaining countries (with the exception of Peru) display high levels of malapportionment despite the fact
that their constitutions formally prescribe the equality of each citizen?s vote.
5 An exogenous distribution determines the likelihood that citizens will threaten the elite with revolution.
The main insight is that in a Markovian equilibrium democratization acts as a credible
commitment to pro-citizen policies. Moreover, transition to a distorted democracy (where the elite
has proportionally more political power than their population share) is more likely whenever the
elite has vested economic interests that are potentially threatened by policies preferred by the
citizens in the new democratic regime6. On the other hand, as long as – for ideological or economic
reasons – the citizens prefer to live in a democratic regime, they may accept these biased political
institutions, thereby committing not to harm the elite?s interests.
In a related paper, Acemoglu and Robinson (2007) point out that policies are often invariant,
even after the switch from an authoritarian to a democratic regime. They argue that the elite can
affect democratic decision-making by undertaking several forms of investment, such as lobbying,
paramilitary forces, and patronage. Mulligan, Gil, and Sala–I–Martin (2004) also provide evidence
that democracies do not necessarily have very different public policies from authoritarian regimes.
Extending Acemoglu and Robinson?s framework to our area of study, we view
malapportionment as a device that the elite can employ to keep de jure political power in
democracies. That is, malapportionment could allow a democracy to emerge and persist but in a
captured form with the elite still being able to impose their preferred policies7. Malapportionment
can act as a substitute for other mechanisms such as coups, lobbying, and buying votes that the elite
can use to keep de facto power in democracies but that involve collective action problems8.
The next step in our argument is to identify the channels through which malapportionment
has a negative effect on economic development. There are at least three potential channels: (i) the
elite could block profitable economic activities and technological innovation by the citizens in order
to preempt any threats to their economic and political status, (ii) legislative malapportionment could
induce weaker political competition, and (iii) malapportionment could lead to a suboptimal
allocation of public resources, by diverting funds to regions or agents with more political power.
6 The authors use the example of the Chilean “democracia protegida” after the Pinochet dictatorship as an example of a
distorted democracy in which the former dictator and its followers hold a disproportionate quota of de jure political
power. In general, the model implies that countries where elite groups hold a larger share of national income are more
likely to be characterized by distorted democratic institutions.
7 Dahl (1971) argues that democracies could be defined in terms of (i) institutionalization and (ii) representation.
Successful democracies start with (i) and later move to (ii). In contrast, failures start with (ii) and follow with (i). In this
line of reasoning, malapportionment should be present in the early stages of democratic regimes and help their
8 Several related papers have investigated the endogenous choice of democratic institutions. Aghion, Alesina, and
Trebbi (2004) focus on the political economy of choosing the size of the minority needed to block legislation and the
optimal size of the supermajority necessary to govern. Similarly, Trebbi, Aghion, and Alesina (2008) develop a
theoretical model to show how the majority of a population can have strong incentives to manipulate electoral rules as
the size of the minority changes. Evidence on the electoral rules of southern US cities is consistent with this theoretical
argument. Finally, Ticchi and Vindigni (2003) model the determinants of the choice between majoritarian and
consensual democracies. They show that more unequal countries are more likely to choose majoritarian democracy
since it is more likely to have a political economic equilibrium with lower taxation and a smaller size of government.
All three channels have either theoretical or empirical support in the previous literature.
With respect to Channels (i) and (iii), Acemoglu (2006) highlights how the elite can deliberately
block economic development. The author provides a model in which the elite choose policies to
increase their income and to transfer resources from the rest of society to themselves. The actions
that the elite adopt include revenue extraction, factor price manipulation, and policies that
impoverish other groups competing with them for political power9. These actions negatively affect
economic development since they lead to a suboptimal allocation of resources.
A number of papers provide empirical evidence for Channel (iii). McCubbins and Schwartz
(1988) and Ansolabehere, Gerber and Snyder (2002) study the effects of court ordered redistricting
in the US. They document that reapportionment did not change the overall level of public spending,
but significantly affected its distribution among electoral districts. Similarly, Horiuchi and Saito
(2003) analyze the consequences for public spending of the reapportionment that took place in
Japan in 1994. They find that this reform was associated with the equalization across municipalities
of public transfers per capita. Other studies such as Gibson, Calvo and Falletti (2004) for Latin
America and Knight (2004) for the US Senate highlight that over-represented areas get a larger
share of federal funds. Samuels (2002) shows that the composition of several Brazilian budgetary
committees (such as the Joint Committee for Planning, Public Budgets and Oversight or CMO)
reflects the legislative chambers? patterns of geographical over/under representation. He also
discusses that this translates into a biased redistribution of public spending among Brazilian States.
Aghion, Boustan, Hoxby, and Vandenbussche (2006) show that members of the appropriation
committee in the US legislature are able to channel more resources to electoral districts located in
areas they represent. The main insight of this literature is that legislative representation matters and
that over-represented areas posses a higher degree of political influence.
Going back to Channel (ii), malapportionment could also lead to poorer economic
performance by lowering the degree of political competition. If certain political parties have a
systematic advantage during elections, politicians could be more prone to elite capture and to the
influence of interest groups. Besley, Persson and Sturm (2006) develop a model that predicts that
political competition enhances economic performance. They find empirical support for their model
in US data. Moreover, Cox and Katz (1999) document that the redistricting that took place in US
after the Supreme Court?s intervention was associated with the disappearance of the long lasting
pro-Republican bias in the translation of votes into seats in non-southern congressional elections.
3. Data description
9 The assumption here is that economic power translates into political power.
This section describes the data used in the empirical analysis. We first provide a definition
of our measures of legislative malapportionment and then turn to the description of the other data.
The panel and within country data in this paper are exclusively for Latin American countries. We
chose to limit the analysis to Latin America for two reasons. First, Latin American countries have
more time series data available on legislative malapportionment. Second, the relatively higher
degree of historical homogeneity of this sample of countries may allow us to better gauge the effect
of legislative malapportionment on political and economic outcomes.
3.1 Measures of legislative malapportionment
This paper uses two main measures of lower chamber legislative malapportionment. The
first measure is an index of malapportionment at the country level provided by Samuels and Snyder
(2001) and Snyder and Samuels (2004). Their measure is a slight modification of the Loosemore–
Hanby index of disproportionality for electoral systems. Country j?s overall level of lower house
malapportionment is computed as:
2 i 1
where s is the percentage of all seats allocated to district i and v is the percentage of the overall
population that resides in district i. Each district?s deviation from perfect apportionment is given by
the difference between its share of seats and of the population. The formula sums over all N
electoral districts in country j. The index thus denotes the share of seats allocated to districts that
would not have received those seats if there were no legislative malapportionment.
A score of 0 corresponds to the case of a perfectly apportioned lower chamber where no
citizen?s vote has more weight than another?s. Full malapportionment corresponds to a score equal
to 1. In this limit case for democratic countries, the index would denote a situation where a single
district with only one voter has the right to choose all the legislators. A value 0.25 of the index
means that one fourth of the seats are allocated to districts that would not get them in absence of
We also use a within country variant on the measure of malapportionment in our empirical
analysis. To measure electoral district i„s degree of over or under-representation we follow the
existing approach in the literature (see Ansolabehere et al., 2002) and adopt the following measure:
where s is the share of seats allocated to the district i and v its share of the population. Values
greater than 1 denote over-representation of district i, and the opposite is true for values less than 1.
The data needed to compute (2) come from Samuels and Snyder (2001) and Snyder and Samuels
(2004), as well as from national sources.
3.2 Other data
Our measures of economic development and the quality of institutions, as well as relevant
country characteristics come from a number of different sources. The sources for our cross-country
regression depicted in Figure 1 are listed in the note below the figure.
Data on income inequality are from Bourgignon and Morrisson (2002) and the UNU-WIDER
World Income Inequality Database. Data on settler mortality and on population density in 1500 are
from Acemoglu et al. (2001, 2002).
We also use historical country–level data from 1870 to 2000 on income per capita and
political institutions for a panel of 11 Latin America countries8. Data on GDP per capita are from
Maddison (2005) for all the countries but Chile, in which case the source is Díaz et al. (2008). Our
measure of democracy is the variable polity 2 from the Polity IV Dataset: it ranges from –10 to +10
with higher values corresponding to better democratic institutions.
The source for Latin American within country data is Bruhn and Gallego (2007). They
provide data on income per capita, temperature, rainfall, and on the type of colonial activities, as
well as a landlocked dummy, for different regions within Latin American countries. For this paper,
we collected additional within country information on political parties, electoral outcomes, and on
transfers from the central government from several national statistical sources and documents.
4. Methodology and empirical evidence
4.1 Income and legislative malapportionment
8 The countries included in the dataset are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras,
Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela
As discussed in the introduction, Figure 1 shows a negative correlation between legislative
malapportionment and GDP per capita. However, reverse causality or omitted variables may be
driving these results.
To further investigate the relationship between income per capita and malapportionment we
rely on a panel dataset for eleven Latin American countries for the period 1870 - 2000. The model
we estimate is:
where y is the log of the income per capita of country i at time t, y
is the 5 year lag of the
dependent variable and mal
is the 5 year lag of the logarithm of country i?s legislative
malapportionment. We include a full set of time fixed effects,
, to control for common shocks to
all the countries and a full set of country fixed effects,
. By including country fixed effects we
take out any country time–invariant characteristic that could affect both income per capita and
legislative malapportionment. This econometric approach therefore allows us to control for a
potentially relevant source of omitted variable bias. Standard errors are clustered at the country
level to control for potential correlation in the error term across observations over time. Note that
the model we estimate is a simple rearrangement of a more traditional specification that has income
growth as the dependent variable.
The results in Table 3 Column 1 show that lagged malapportionment is negatively related to
income per capita, even when controlling for country fixed effects and lagged income. Although
these estimates do not rule out all sources of bias since they do not control for possible omitted time
varying factors that could affect both malapportionment and per capita income, they make us more
confident about the relationships depicted in Figure 1.
We then perform a falsification exercise, by estimating:
where the variables are the same as in equation (3) and the observations covering 1870 to 2000 are
taken over 5 year intervals. Table 4 Column 1 shows that the high and statistically significant
estimate of the coefficient
displays a considerable degree of persistence in malapportionment
over time. Interestingly, lagged income does not have any relevant impact on subsequent
realizations of malapportionment.