The circumstances of any election are always complex, making it difficult for political scientists to isolate the kinds of variables that academic research explores. But a recent change to Paraguay’s electoral system made for a near-perfect experiment that gave Eleanor Swager ’25 and RMC political science professor Dr. Brian Turner the chance to test the effects of a single variable on the number of women candidates elected in the country.
The duo was uniquely qualified to tackle this question. Turner was a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay before returning to do field research for his dissertation. Now, his research broadly encompasses Latin America, including a specific focus on Paraguayan history, culture, and politics. Swager is a Spanish, political science, and international studies triple major with a minor in sociology, which she pairs with a passion for the subject matter.
Paraguay’s electoral system differs from the United States in a few ways. Instead of the candidate that simply has the most votes winning an office, proportional representation awards seats in each body of government to each political party based on the percentage of the total votes they received. In the previous party-list system, the seats won by a party would be distributed to candidates based on a priority list predetermined by the party. Since 1996, Paraguay has also had a quota that requires at least 20% of the candidates on these lists be women.
In an effort to fight corruption, the crucial change to an open-list system in 2019 means that instead of selecting a party list in its entirety, voters cast their vote for a single candidate. Seats are still distributed to the parties proportionally, but the preferential order of the candidates selected within each party is determined by who won the most votes.
Swager and Turner sought to determine if women running for office would fare better or worse in the election results under these new regulations. They began their research here in Ashland, studying the first elections under the new system, which were 2021’s municipal elections (town councils, mayors, etc.), and presented their findings at the Middle Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies in March.
“In the 2021 elections, women were more likely to be lowered on the party list than raised, but it wasn’t a drastic difference,” Swager explained. “Overall, 27 fewer women were elected than would have been under the closed-list system, but we’re talking about hundreds of candidates.”
Swager continued the work, using it as the subject of her term paper for Dr. Turner’s class.
“I just loved it; I worked on it a ton. I gave him my term paper for the class, which was supposed to be 10 pages. Mine was 35,” Swager said. “He was like ‘we could really keep going with this.’”
The next round of elections, and the next chance to obtain data on this phenomenon, was the national elections of 2023 and Swager jumped at the chance to continue her pursuit of the research through the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). This time, Swager and Turner traveled to Paraguay to consult with experts and candidates, adding qualitative color to the foundation of their quantitative analysis.
“As far as I know, Eleanor and I are the only ones working on this particular way of looking at this. Most people just count up the number of candidates and the number of women elected,” Turner said. “We’re comparing not only the number of women elected, but how that is different from the number who would have been elected had the old system still been in place.”
The expectation was that without the rigid structure of the party lists, women would suffer at the ballot box. And while that was marginally true in the municipal elections, the national elections saw more women elected than there would have been under the old system.
Swager and Turner also sought to understand what kind of candidates were excelling in this new dynamic.
“We were able to interview a few candidates, which was really interesting, and look at social media too,” Swager said. “A lot of the time, these women would present themselves in their Twitter bio as ‘mother, wife, sister, politician’—in that order. So even the women that are being elected there, their female family role is what’s dominant over their political career.”
Beyond the work analyzing electoral impacts, the trip was valuable for Swager to experience a new country and culture. While much of the trip was spent in the capital city of Asuncion and using public transportation, the professor-student duo also traveled to rural parts of the country, where the people spoke the indigenous language of Guarani instead of Spanish.
“It felt like immersion in a way that I truly haven’t had before,” Swager said. “I was just trying to be there to soak it in, to learn, to understand, and I truly learned so much: the history of Paraguay, the politics, the language. Just walking to the bus stop, Dr. Turner would always tell me five things I didn’t know. So that was really amazing.”
Swager finished a paper on the research and presented her findings at the SURF Symposium on Aug. 4. But she and Turner view this as just the beginning of what this line of questioning can produce, including hopes for future publication. Swager is also planning on supplementing the work with perspectives from her other areas of study.
“I have a Spanish capstone this spring, and I’m going to look at the media presence of female candidates to have that kind of cultural or linguistic lens to have a fuller and deeper understanding of this, because it’s so complex,” Swager said.