Costa Rica's national elections, held every four years, always on the first Sunday of February, reaffirm the pride Ticos feel for their democratic system. In the rest of Central America, says travel writer Paul Theroux, "an election can be a harrowing piece of criminality; in Costa Rica [it is] something of a fiesta. `You should have been here for the election,' a woman told me in San José, as if I had missed a party." The streets are crisscrossed with flags, and everyone drives around honking their horns, throwing confetti, and holding up their purple-stained thumbs to show that they voted.
Costa Rican citizens enjoy universal suffrage--everyone, male and female, over 18 has the vote--and citizens are automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthday, when they are issued a voter identity card. Since 1959 voting has been compulsory for all citizens under 70 years of age. After being ushered into voting booths by schoolchildren decked out in party colors, voters indicate their political preferences with a thumbprint beneath a photograph of the candidates of their choice. Splitting votes across party lines is common, as separate ballots are issued for the presidency, legislature, and municipal councils; disillusioned voters register their dissent with the dominant parties by turning in blank ballots. If the president-elect fails to receive 40% of the vote, a special runoff election is held for the two top contenders.
The daily press is full of political messages for months preceding an election. Most papers take an overt partisan stance and journalists "print news stories that may be extremely biased, and allow supporters of opposing points of view to reply the next day," say the Biesanzes in their book, The Costa Ricans. As in the U.S., campaigns tend to stress personalities rather than issues, with one blessed difference: attacking your opponent's personal life is considered taboo. "Costa Ricans may copy a lot of things Americans do," said Figueres, "but they would never use sex scandals against their worst enemies." The Supreme Electoral Tribunal rules on campaign issues and can prohibit the use of political smears, such as branding an opponent as communist.
Control of the police force also reverts to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal during election campaigns to help ensure the integrity of all constitutional guarantees. All parties are granted equal air time on radio and television, and all campaign costs are largely drawn from the public purse: any party with five percent or more of the vote in the prior election can apply for a proportionate share of the official campaign fund, equal to 0.5 percent of the national budget. If a party fails to get five percent of the vote, it is legally required to refund the money, though this rarely happens.