Means and costs of electoral frauds: Global perspective

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: February 05, 2019 21:12:58

Believed to be widespread, especially in developing countries of the world, electoral fraud may be defined as illegal, immoral and unethical interferences in the election process. In an oft-quoted paper titled 'The Menu of Manipulation' (2002), Andreas Schedler proposed the following wide-ranging definition: "Electoral fraud involves the introduction of bias into the administration of elections. It can take place at any stage of the electoral process, from voter registration to the final tally of ballots. It covers such activities as forging voter ID cards, burning ballot boxes or padding the vote totals of favoured parties and candidates. Invariably, though, it violates the principle of democratic equality. Fraudulent practices distort the citizenry's preferences by denying voting rights to some citizens, while amplifying the voice of others."

Common types of electoral fraud include: 'double voting' or 'ballot stuffing', where one person casts more than one vote; 'dead voters', where a deceased person remains on the voters' list and a living person fraudulently casts vote in his or her name; 'voter suppression', where tactics are employed for lowering or suppressing the number of voters; 'registration fraud', where voter registration is done for a fictional person, or is performed for a real person without his consent or knowledge; 'voter impersonation', when a person claims to be someone else while casting vote; 'vote buying', when agreements are reached for buying or selling votes; 'fraud by officials', when ballots are manipulated by officials administering elections, such as throwing out ballots, or casting or stuffing ballots in the name of voters.

Electoral manipulations diminish or thwart many of the assumed benefits of democratic governance, including public accountability, transparency, and representation. Studies on election fraud, including the one by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, have shown that applying dirty tactics helps the politicians that are already in office. By resorting to illegal and unethical practices, they can expect to be in office around 2.5 times longer than if they participated in fair elections. But dirty elections are bad for socio-economic growth, as they skew the politicians' incentives towards pursuing bad policies instead of good ones. 

In their highly insightful book How to Rig an Election (Yale University Press, 2018), Professor Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham and the academic Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics have shown that 75 per cent of elections are won by governments in power through authoritarian adaptation and systemic manipulations. The book made an engrossing analysis of the pseudo-democratic methods employed by despots around the globe to retain power. The authors argue that the increase in voting has not led to a corresponding rise in embracing democratic norms, with voter intimidation, strategic misinformation, and ballot-rigging common in many countries that describe themselves as democratic.

Contrary to what is commonly believed, authoritarian leaders who agree to hold elections are generally able to remain in power longer than autocrats who refuse to allow the population to vote freely. Cheeseman and Klaas exposed the limitations of national elections as a means of promoting democratisation, and revealed the six essential strategies adopted by dictators to undermine the electoral process in order to guarantee victory for themselves. Based on their firsthand experiences as election watchers as well as interviews with top officials and manipulators, they documented instances of vote rigging from Argentina to Zimbabwe, Brazil to India, Nigeria, Russia, and the United States. They noted that the greatest political paradox of our time was "there are more elections than ever before, but the world is becoming less democratic". The vast majority of governments appear to go through the motions of election campaigns, and are rhetorically committed to allowing citizens to cast ballots for choosing leaders. But in many places, that choice is little more than an illusion: "the contest is rigged from the very start".

The co-authors argue that elections have been co-opted by regimes across the globe to tighten their grip on power. "Previously, it was assumed that a deluge of elections would lead to a flood of incumbents losing power. Instead, a small proportion of incumbents are losing office, and in some places, like sub-Saharan Africa, we actually find little difference in incumbent turnover rates since the 'Third Wave of Democracy' swept across the continent in the late 1980s. Some single-party dictatorships are actually less stable than 'counterfeit democracies' that are authoritarian but hold ostensibly multi-party elections. In other words, if you want to stay in power, rigging elections is preferable to not holding them at all".

During their research, Cheeseman and Klaas uncovered elections rigged through use of disappearing ink in polling stations of opposition strongholds, such as in Ukraine; assassinations, as in Pakistan and Mexico; using name doubles for popular opposition candidates and putting them on the ballot to split votes, as in Russia; drawing gerrymandered districts, as in Zimbabwe and the United States; blatant ballot box stuffing, as in Turkey and Kenya; manipulating the international community to endorse a rigged election, as in Azerbaijan; vote buying, as in Thailand and Uganda; and many other innovative techniques.

Elections are supposed to be truly transformative. But rigged ones are instruments of the status quo, not of change. And they have become astonishingly common now. Since the end of Cold War, many elections held in authoritarian states have demonstrated some forms of electoral manipulation. As a consequence, authoritarian leaders win elections in such contexts about nine times out of ten. Despite the impression of competition and choice, these elections deliver continuity instead of change.

Interestingly, Cheeseman and Klaas find that only about 30 per cent of all elections in the world result in an incumbent losing power. The post-Cold War normal is not 'the end of history' with democracy reigning everywhere; but instead 'counterfeit democracy' dominates many regions of the globe. Elections are often used not to translate the will of the people into political power, but rather to subvert people's will and ensure that the incumbent continues to remain in office.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly and retired Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration.


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