The Evolution of Election Rigging

Publication Date: 
1 Jun 2018

News Type:

by Otito Greg-Obi*

On Wednesday, May 23, Professor Nic Cheeseman joined the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) for a presentation and discussion of his new book, How to Rig an Election, which he coauthored with Brian Klaas. The book confronts the paradox that even though the number of elections has heightened greatly, the world has become less democratic.

In his presentation, Cheeseman explained that 75 percent of elections are won by governments in power because of authoritarian adaptation and systemic manipulation. He also argued that the most stable regimes are neither purely democracies nor purely authoritarian governments — but authoritarian governments that hold elections. Authoritarian leaders can use elections as a foundation for re-establishing their position and gaining better access to international financial assistance.

This could partially explain why authoritarian leaders have an incentive to hold elections but also manipulate them to secure victory and maintain power. Manipulation of the electoral process has evolved such that it increasingly takes place three to four years in advance rather than simply on Election Day. This form of “invisible rigging” gives the illusion of democracy and creates a level of plausible deniability that makes rigging difficult to prove. Cheeseman and Klaas outline examples from the “dictator’s toolbox,” which include methods such as manipulating the voters’ rolls by excluding opposition voters and redrawing election boundaries, also known as gerrymandering. Such tactics set the stage for rigged elections to play out legally in view of international observers, even though manipulation has already taken place.

Another major takeaway from Cheeseman’s argument is that expensive elections are not domestically sustainable. In his research, Cheeseman found that an increase in technology expenditure correlates with a decrease in civil society monitoring expenditure, which can then cause a lack of oversight. Thus, political challenges may require political solutions, not just technological ones. However, Cheeseman also noted that there are cases in which technology works exceedingly well. For example, in Ghana civil society organizations successfully used text messaging and parallel voter tabulation to increase the accountability of the election management body.

There are many challenges that lay ahead in building a more democratic world. By way of solutions, Cheeseman offered that one step forward could be for the international donor community to operate based on full electoral cycles, rather than just election dates. This would allow implementers to pursue interventions and programming far in advance. Cheeseman also emphasized the importance of recognizing that this is an incremental process. The international community needs to work together to close new avenues for rigging with each new electoral cycle, so that opportunities to rig will be significantly reduced over time. This will require capacity building to deal simultaneously with multiple electoral issues and focusing on the sustainability of programming. Finally, there is a great need for the international community to focus on democratic renewal and to once again convince all stakeholders—especially those living in authoritarian countries—that competitive, free and fair elections are the life force of a true democracy, and that the quality of elections matters.

The challenges posed by Cheeseman and Klaas point to the invaluable role that IFES plays in the elections space. IFES has developed rigorous tools and methodologies for analyzing vulnerabilities such as electoral fraud and malpractice through its electoral integrity assessments and its electoral process diagnostics. In recent times, IFES has worked to improve the competitiveness of elections by researching and identifying ways to prevent the abuse of state resources, which can corrupt the electoral process by providing an unfair advantage to incumbents. Additionally, in partnership with Democracy International, IFES has published a white paper called Election Audits: International Principles that Protect Election Integrity. Concrete electoral assistance interventions like these, that are sustainable and rooted in electoral integrity, are essential to rebuilding democratic renewal worldwide.

*Otito Greg-Obi is a program associate with IFES’ Africa division.