As elections become more prevalent as the stated method of choosing who governs, is the world actually becoming less democratic? In their new book, How to Rig an Election, Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas argue that the increase in voting has not led to a corresponding rise in the embracing of democratic norms, with voter intimidation, strategic misinformation, and ballot-rigging common in many countries that describe themselves as democratic.
The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, but the world is becoming less democratic.
Nowadays, elections are held almost everywhere. The vast majority of governments at least go through the motions of election campaigns, and are rhetorically committed to allowing citizens to cast ballots to choose the leaders who will govern them. However, in many places, that choice is little more than an illusion: the contest is rigged from the start.
In our new book, How to Rig an Election, we 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.
There are many ways to rig elections. In our research, we have uncovered elections that have been rigged by placing pens with disappearing ink in polling stations within opposition stronghold regions (Ukraine); with assassinations (Pakistan and Mexico, for example); by finding name doubles for the popular opposition candidates and placing them on the ballot too to split the vote (Russia); by drawing gerrymandered districts (Zimbabwe and the United States); by blatant ballot box stuffing (Turkey and Kenya); by manipulating the international community to endorse a rigged election (Azerbaijan); by vote buying (Thailand and Uganda); and using many other innovative and often surprising tactics.
We want to believe that elections are truly transformative political institutions. But rigged elections are instruments of the status quo, not of change. And rigged elections are astonishingly common.
Since the end of the Cold War, the majority of elections held in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states have featured some form of electoral manipulation. Partly as a result, authoritarian leaders win elections in such contexts about nine times out of ten. Despite the impression of competition and choice, then, these elections deliver more continuity than change.
Globally, only about 30% of all elections – including the top-notch elections in places like Scandinavia – result in an incumbent losing power. On a scale of election quality, with 1 being worst and 10 being best, the average election around the world scores just 6. In Asia, Africa, post- communist Europe, and the Middle East, the figure is closer to 5. We have to be start being honest that the post-Cold War normal is not ‘the end of history’ with democracy everywhere, but instead ‘counterfeit democracy’ dominating most regions of the world. Elections are too often used not to translate the will of the people into political power but instead to subvert the will of the people and ensure that the incumbent stays in power.
That slate of poor quality elections has had a major impact on democracy globally. According to Freedom House, the American pro-democracy think tank, in 2017, 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. For the last 12 years, the number of countries registering improvements and moving toward better quality democracy has been smaller than the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism.
Of course, it’s tempting to think that this trend is a result of poor legal frameworks or badly written constitutions. If that were the case, the solutions would be more straightforward: a push by the international community to move more countries toward the best practices of legal frameworks around elections. And, of course, that is important work that should be done. But for the most part, the problem is not legal; it’s political.
For most dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats, the sweet spot of election rigging is to use the law as a tool to ensure victory. Rigging can either be legal (such as gerrymandering, candidate exclusion, or voter suppression) or it can be illegal (assassinating rivals or ballot box stuffing). Rigging can also be either effective (resulting in the incumbent staying in power) or it can be ineffective (resulting in an incumbent losing the election and possibly losing power). And finally, rigging can be either subtle (difficult to detect) or blatant (immediately obvious to everyone).
These binary characteristics allow us to develop a typology of election rigging tactics and place them, in order, according to their desirability from the point of view of an incumbent hoping to stay in power. The ‘best’ election rigging tactics are subtle, legal, and effective; nobody knows you’re doing them; if you are caught it’s technically within the confines of the law; and they ensure you stay in power. Examples of this are excluding opposition candidates on a legal loophole or gerrymandering (which, in the United States, for example, only happens every 10 years so it isn’t on the mind of most voters on polling day). The ‘worst’ are blatant, illegal, and ineffective. Examples include violent repression and ballot box stuffing (which often leads to incumbents getting caught and sometimes fails to deliver ‘enough’ ballots to overcome a lack of popular support). Of course, no form of election rigging guarantees victory – and even the ‘worst’ cruder, more visible forms of election manipulation like ballot box stuffing can ‘work’ extremely well, assuming it is done with strategic precision.
Furthermore, incumbents who rig elections need to think about two main audiences: their own people and the international community. The degree to which they prioritize one audience over another depends on the country’s control of information flows and how well positioned it is without international aid or international legitimacy. For countries that have a strategic relationship with global powers, the specter of lost international legitimacy by virtue of rigging an election is less threatening than a country that is of little strategic value to global powers and also relies on international aid. However, even in countries in which the international community has minimal leverage over the incumbent regime, if the citizens find out that the election was rigged it can produce serious consequences (mass protests, general strikes, or a loss of popular legitimacy that lingers on in the form of a higher risk of coups, revolutions, insurrection, or civil war). As with much of election rigging, then, incumbents face a series of tradeoffs as to which threat is most urgent and consequential. Of course, in pure dictatorships like North Korea, media is tightly controlled so dictators are able to rig elections with impunity and nobody finds out – or if they do, they fear speaking out lest they be tossed in a prison camp or gulag.
With all of these various calculations at play, it’s little surprise that dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats rig elections with a variety of different tactics. Different contexts call for different strategies. But what we find – and argue as a central theme of the book – is that dictators and those who rig elections across the globe draw from a toolbox of tactics and tricks rather than relying on just one practice. In most cases, we find the striking reality that these tactics can also be complementary, working in tandem to ensure that the failings of any one given tactic don’t leave anything to chance. So, for example, an incumbent may choose to gerrymander and intimidate opposition voters using violent repression – but may still choose to stuff ballot boxes on the day of the election as an extra layer of security. Again, these decisions are often made based upon the degree to which they fear losing power and the degree to which it would be damaging to them to be exposed as having rigged the election.
Moreover, incumbents face a timing problem. In our field research, one American diplomat put it like this: ‘Only amateurs steal elections on Election Day.’ What he meant was that last-minute rigging is a bit like buying an airline ticket last-minute: it’s costly, risky, and you might still get left behind if no viable options are available. In that regard, the savviest ‘experts’ at rigging elections start rigging well before voting begins. In one interview, Nic asked a Zimbabwean official about the allegation that the ruling party, Zanu-PF, systematically ensured that children in opposition strongholds would not get birth certificates so that they would be unable to vote when they reached the voting age of 18. After hearing the allegation, the official rocked back in his chair, chuckled and said, ‘That I can neither confirm nor deny… but, you know, you have to get up very early in the morning to beat ZANU–PF’. In other words, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some elections are being systematically rigged by cynical government policy up to two decades in advance.
Other pre-election rigging comes in the form of legal but illegitimate candidate exclusion. In places like Côte d’Ivoire or Madagascar, incumbents have disqualified their main challengers using legal technicalities or by changing the law specifically to outlaw a specific person from appearing on the ballot. That is a highly effective strategy because, if it is done legally, it is unlikely that election monitors will condemn the practice. International election observers (too often, in our opinion) follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law when making their assessments of election quality.
In some cases, though, early planning is impossible. Perhaps the election was called late as a result of international pressure, or the state just didn’t have the capacity to carry out sophisticated pre-election rigging. In those cases, incumbents turn to desperation rigging – simply inventing tallies at regional collation centers, or stuffing ballot boxes openly, or killing their opponents in cold blood.
How to Rig an Election concludes with suggested solutions for how to deter election rigging and how international election observation can be improved. There are no silver bullets, no panaceas that will stop election rigging completely. Instead, international election observation sometimes feels a bit like a game of Whac-a-Mole, where observers get good at detecting and condemning one form of rigging, only to have a new and more innovative technique crop up. But we need to be clear: being honest about the occasional failings of election observation does not undercut their importance as the on-the-ground watchdogs. On the contrary, they need to better learn from their mistakes – but they also need to be better supported by the international community.
Unfortunately, we are worried that such redoubled commitments will be difficult to find these days. Democracy promotion and election monitoring are each facing serious geopolitical headwinds. China and Russia are exerting more influence across the globe. The European Union is preoccupied with Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populism in Hungary, Italy, and Poland. And the White House has harshly criticized democratic allies while uncritically praising a dizzying array of abusive dictators who rig elections. Nonetheless, despite this moment of geopolitical realignment, our work shows How to Rig an Election in the hopes that the world will care enough to try to help stop it.
How to Rig an Election was published in May and is available from Yale University Press.
About the authors
Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham.
Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.