Rigged Polls Causes, Means & Costs

11 February 2020


Helal Uddin Ahmed :
[It's the second part of 'Electoral Fraud' published on February 6]
Electoral fraud and manipulations are considered to be pervasive throughout the developing world, giving rise to chronic concerns regarding increased corruption and inhibition of economic growth, as the voters are prevented from holding the elected officials accountable. There are many ways to manipulate elections, including candidate cum voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and changing vote totals after ballots are cast. When election outcomes are manipulated through fraud, government officials may no longer have the incentive to perform or respond positively to their constituents' needs. Besides, fraudulently elected people may feel emboldened to engage in corrupt behaviour that hinders socio-economic growth. Despite the proliferation of democratic institutions across the globe, this dearth of electoral accountability perhaps explains why corruption cum poor governance remain persistent problems especially in the developing world (Olken and Pande, 2012; Svensson, 2003). Maladministration caused by unnecessary red tape and irregularities significantly inhibits economic growth through negative effects like discouraging investment (Mauro, 1995; Meon and Khalid, 2005; Fisman and Svensson, 2007; World Bank, 2013).
According to the USA-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), electoral fraud may be defined as "deliberate wrong-doing by election officials or other electoral stakeholders, which distorts the individual or collective will of the voters". On the other hand, electoral malpractice has been defined by IFES as "the breach by an election professional of his or her relevant duty of care, resulting from carelessness or neglect". 
In their highly acclaimed book 'How to Rig an Election' (Yale University Press, 2018), Nic Cheeseman of Birmingham University and Brian Klaas of London School of Economics have shown that the governments in power win 75% elections through authoritarian adaptation and systemic manipulations. The book made a fascinating 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. Rather, voter intimidation, strategic misinformation, and vote-rigging are common in many countries that describe themselves as democratic.
Cheeseman and Klaas claim that most dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats resort to election rigging by using the law as a tool to ensure their 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)".
"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.... The 'worst' are blatant, illegal, and ineffective. Examples include violent repression and ballot box stuffing (which often leads to incumbents getting caught and sometimes failing to deliver 'enough' ballots to overcome a lack of popular support", assert Cheeseman and Klaas.
"Furthermore, incumbents who rig elections need to think about two main audiences: their own people and the international community. The degree to which they prioritise 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 spectre 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)", the co-authors claim.
It is therefore not unusual that elections are rigged by employing a variety of tactics, with varying strategies in different contexts. Those who rig elections across the globe draw from a toolbox of tactics and tricks rather than relying solely on one method. In most cases, these tactics are found to be complementary for ensuring that the failure of any one tactic does not leave things to chance. So, for example, an incumbent may choose to gerrymander and intimidate opposition voters through violent repression - but may still choose to stuff ballot boxes on the day of the election as an extra precaution. These decisions are often taken based on the degree of fear of losing power compared to the degree of damage the regime would be exposed to for rigging an election.
The co-authors also point out that 'Only amateurs steal elections on Election Day.' In reality, the 'experts' at rigging elections start the manipulation process well before the voting begins. It is not outside the realm of possibility that some elections are systematically rigged through cynical policies set in motion even a decade earlier. Other pre-election manipulation comes in the form of legal but immoral or unethical exclusion of candidates. However, early planning is impossible in some cases. In such cases, the incumbents may turn to 'desperation rigging' - by inventing tallies at collation centres, or stuffing ballot boxes, or killing the opponents in cold blood.
It is quite clear from the foregoing that preventing and mitigating electoral fraud and manipulation by authoritarian regimes bent on retaining power are huge challenges for the developing countries of the world. The IFES has proposed a framework (2012) for conceptualising election frauds and malpractices as well as their deterrence and mitigation.
The framework is as follows:
Figure: Elements of Electoral Fraud cum Malpractice and their Deterrence cum Mitigation
Restoration of infringed rights
The above-mentioned framework may be applied by the affected states as well as international community for promoting genuine democracy and fundamental freedoms through ensuring free and fair elections across the globe.

 (Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of GoB and former Editorial Consultant of The Financial Express. Email: hahmed1960@gmail.com)

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