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How to steal an election in broad daylight

A souvenir kiosk in Moscow offers a drawing of Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby President Trump, based on a similar propaganda poster of late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Trump’s open embrace of authoritarian leaders such as Putin makes it difficult for him to combat claims that his administration is not doing enough to prevent election rigging.

Autocrats and counterfeit democrats have perfected the art of rigging polls to stay in power — without breaking any laws. 

Kampala, Uganda | NIC CHEESEMAN & BRIAN KLAAS | In Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, droves of voters turned out in opposition strongholds, hoping to oust the incumbent, Viktor Yanukovych. Upon arrival at their assigned polling stations, they received their crisp ballot papers and pens to mark them with. They dutifully ticked the box for the opposition — and against the ruling regime. Then, they slipped their cleanly marked ballot papers into the ballot box to be counted. Having done their democratic duty, they left.

Four minutes later, their ballots were blank. Although the opposition voters didn’t know it, they had been given pens that were filled with disappearing ink. The ballot boxes were filled with stacks of unmarked ballots.

Despite such dirty tricks, Yanukovych eventually lost. Election observers noticed the disappearing ink trick — and many others — leading to the election being rerun. But Yanukovych’s defeat was unusual. Incumbents win most elections these days; for two reasons. First, they enjoy many legitimate advantages, such as the ability to set the political agenda. Second, a remarkably high proportion of elections are rigged. Most incumbents have learned to transform elections from a threat to their grip on power into something that can instead be used to tighten it. They’ve figured out how to rig an election, leading to the greatest political paradox of our time: There are more elections than ever before, and yet 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.

Era of democratic recession

If you think that poor-quality elections like the 2004 vote in Ukraine are an exception, think again: On a scale of 1 to 10, in which 10 reflects a perfect election and 1 reflects the worst possible, the average election around the world scores just 6 according to data collected by the Electoral Integrity Project. In Asia, Africa, post-communist Europe, and the Middle East, the figure is closer to 5. Globally, only about 30 percent of elections result in a transfer of power. In other words, incumbents win seven times out of 10 — and this figure is even lower in nascent democracies with a recent history of authoritarian rule.

Over the last decade, there has been a gradual decline in the quality of democracy in the world. In 2017, according to Freedom House, 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. The world has become more authoritarian every year since 2006, and the pace of democratic decline seems to be accelerating. Today, nearly 2 in 3 citizens in the world live under a system of government that is not fully democratic. In other words, we are in the middle of a serious democratic recession.

In our research, we uncover a striking fact: Authoritarian regimes that hold elections and manipulate them turn out to be more stable than those that don’t hold elections at all. To understand how dictators and despots get away with rigging elections — and how we can stop them in their authoritarian tracks — we crisscrossed the globe, conducting field research in 11 different countries spread across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and formerly communist Eastern European nations. We interviewed more than 500 elite figures, ranging from prime ministers and presidents who have rigged elections to lower-level election officials; from ambassadors to local aid workers, and from opposition candidates to rebels and coup plotters disillusioned with the state of democracy in their countries. We combined those on-the-ground insights with global data on all elections held since 1960 to get a broader picture of trends and to see how the election-rigging pros have changed their tactics over time.

The smartest way to rig an election

There are a range of possible options that autocrats and counterfeit democrats can use to tip the electoral scales in their favour. Different elections require different tools — but there’s a logic to all of them.

The smartest way to rig an election is to do so before the ballots have even been printed. If you have to resort to rigging with armed henchmen and stuffed ballot boxes, you’ve already failed. Today, the most effective autocrats steal elections well before polling day.

Russian politicians learned this lesson long ago. In the 1998 St. Petersburg local assembly elections, Oleg Sergeyev was running for re-election. In power, he had proved to be quite a thorn in the side of the city’s governor, Vladimir Yakovlev. So much so that some expected Sergeyev could run for the governor’s position in the future or at least challenge his authority by campaigning for reform. A populist operating in a semiauthoritarian political system, Yakovlev did not take opposition lightly, and so he allegedly used his political influence to take Sergeyev out of the game before he became a real threat.

Thus, when Sergeyev launched his bid to retain his seat, he was surprised to learn the names of two of his opponents: Oleg Sergeyev and Oleg Sergeyev. The former was a pensioner, the latter an unemployed man. Neither had any qualifications for the office they were seeking. But they had been handpicked for one key characteristic: their names. When voters arrived in the polling booth, they were unsure which Sergeyev was their candidate of choice. Many cast ballots for the “wrong” Sergeyev, which split the vote and contributed to Sergeyev’s downfall, exactly as Yakovlev had intended.

The problem, of course, is that everyone realised the game that Yakovlev was playing. Voters aren’t stupid, and when they see three Oleg Sergeyevs on one ballot, they know the election is being rigged.

The best manipulations are those that can be done subtly and legally but nonetheless ensure victory. The worst forms of pre-election manipulation are easily detected, illegal, and have little impact. Effective rigging ensures that you win and that you get away with it without losing legitimacy.

Such strategies include manipulating the voter rolls, excluding opposition candidates from running in elections, and distorting electoral districts to maximize partisan gains (gerrymandering). What all of these tactics have in common is that they can be deployed months in advance of an election when most observers aren’t yet on the ground and can be presented as technical or legal decisions as opposed to political skullduggery. When these mechanisms are effectively employed, governments can win elections unfairly without attracting any of the negative attention — criticism, sanctions, international prosecutions — that inevitably result from the use of other, cruder strategies in the dictator’s toolbox.

Sometimes, dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats develop bizarrely ingenious ways to manipulate elections without breaking the law. In Madagascar’s 2006 election, for example, the biggest threat to the incumbent president, Marc Ravalomanana, came from an opposition candidate, Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, who had been banished into exile outside of the island. It was clear that if he were able to return and run for office, he just might win.

Under Malagasy election law, candidates are eligible to run for office only if they have applied for candidacy in person — in Madagascar. So, rather than outright disqualify Rajaonarivelo from running for office, the president came up with a different strategy: make sure that his rival couldn’t land on the island whenever he tried to fly home. Whenever his plane was about to land, the government unilaterally closed Madagascar’s airports and the flight had to turn around. Eventually, the deadline to file the paperwork as a presidential candidate passed. That exclusion of an opposition candidate was certainly illegitimate, but it was perfectly legal. And with no major rivals on the ballot, the president coasted to an easy victory.

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