How to Steal an Election in Broad Daylight

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

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.

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.

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

Above: St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, right, seen with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 2000, allegedly used his political influence to oust his rising-star adversary, Oleg Sergeyev, by helping put two other Oleg Sergeyevs on the ballot, dooming his foe’s prospects of re-election. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images) Top: Tactics such as disappearing ink on ballots are a bit easier to detect. (Foreign Policy illustration)

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 realized 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.

Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on October 3, 2017, as the court hears arguments against gerrymandering. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans and Europeans may sneer at these tactics, but they are not limited to Russia and African island nations. Pre-election manipulation has been commonplace in consolidated democracies for a long time.

“Rotten boroughs” — electoral districts that deliberately included a tiny number of voters who were all dependent on a single landlord — were common in Britain in the early 1800s. The most notorious example was Old Sarum, which had no resident voters at all. The tiny electorate, and the fact that Old Sarum’s voters were dependent on their landlord, ensured that the landlord would always be elected to parliament. For many years in the 1700s, the borough was owned by the Pitt family and elected William Pitt the Elder, who was prime minister in the 1760s.

If you wanted to take a master class in subtle and legal pre-election rigging, you might want to travel to the United States. Despite being seen as the world’s most powerful democracy, America is where many of the rigging techniques used today were perfected and continue to exert a powerful legacy. This is particularly true of two of the most tried and tested methods for establishing a pre-electoral advantage: gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Distorted electoral boundaries loom large in every U.S. congressional election. Opinion polls consistently show that Congress is viewed favorably by just 10 to 20 percent of Americans. That is about the same favorability rating as cockroaches. But even with that dismal approval rating, only eight incumbents out of a body of 435 representatives lost their re-election bids in 2016. This is one of the lowest turnover rates in the world — much lower than the equivalent figure in legislatures in sub-Saharan Africa that are by other measures considered to be significantly less democratic.

Some of these uncompetitive elections are caused by demographic clustering, where like-minded voters self-select into districts (just imagine trying to draw a balanced district of Democrats and Republicans in San Francisco or rural Texas, for example). But gerrymandering also plays a role. Across the United States, self-interested politicians get to choose their voters rather than the other way around. The worst offenders have been clustered in North Carolina, Michigan, and — until a recent decision by the state’s Supreme Court to redraw electoral boundaries — Pennsylvania. And there are offenders on both sides of the aisle: Democratic gerrymandering happens in Massachusetts, Maryland, and to a lesser extent Illinois; while Republican gerrymandering happens in Florida, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. In net terms, Republicans have secured a significant seat advantage in the House of Representatives, thanks to the cynical and self-interested way in which congressional districts are drawn.

This hurts democracy, because for accountability to work voters must be able to “kick out the bums.” In turn, this requires that most elections be competitive — if they are not, then politicians can carry on regardless, safe in the knowledge that they will not lose their seats. But in the 2016 U.S. House election, the average margin of victory was 37.1 percent. In other words, one candidate got close to 70 percent of the vote, with their rival finishing with just over 30 percent. This is a remarkable statistic that seems more in keeping with sham elections in North Korea or Russia than those of the world’s most powerful democracy. Competitive races are vanishingly rare. Out of 435 House seats ostensibly up for grabs, only 17 were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less, and only 18 others were within a margin of 10 percent.

These statistics go a long way in explaining why many Republicans in Congress seem unwilling to break with President Donald Trump on anything of substance; they know that disagreeing with the president could mean losing a primary race to a fellow Republican or, in some cases, losing to a moderate Democrat in the general election. The spread of uncompetitive elections also helps explain why turnout is so low in congressional midterm elections; for voters who live in an uncompetitive district, many figure, “Why bother?”

Members of the Liberian Women in Peacebuilding Network wait for the verdict on a presidential runoff to be pronounced outside the Supreme Court in Monrovia on December 7, 2017. Liberia's Supreme Court ordered the electoral commission to proceed with a runoff delayed for a month by fraud complaints, but said that anomalies in the national voter register needed to be corrected first. (Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/AFP/Getty Images)

While many leaders still feel the need to hand over bags of cash to influential village leaders in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, some are now supplementing this with much more innovative strategies. In some places, for example, incumbents who used to engage in unspeakable acts of violent repression around elections have learned that you don’t have to use violence every time — you just have to remind frightened voters of those past abuses. An arsonist does not have to keep burning down your house to convey a threat; rather, he can send the same message by simply shaking a matchbox anytime he walks past. In the same way, incumbents can intimidate voters with innuendo and vague threats — actions that are not usually illegal.

Furthermore, those who buy votes are finding new ways to ensure that their money doesn’t go to waste. In the past, voters might take money to vote a certain way and then vote their conscience anyway. That made vote buying an inefficient and highly uncertain tactic. But some savvy autocrats have found loopholes: In some cases, voters are instructed to pretend that they are illiterate or blind so that they can vote by voice — allowing the local henchman who paid them to hear them cast their ballots the “right” way and ensure that the voters have kept their end of the bargain. The threat of reprisals if the voter is seen to be disloyal makes vote buying much more effective.

In short, while more elections are being held and more elections are being monitored to verify their integrity, the entire business of elections has become a bit like a game of Whac-a-Mole. Whenever Western observers get good at detecting and condemning foul play, opportunistic incumbents just shift their tactics or get better at hiding them.

The consequences of rigging are often negligible. There are countless elections that were blatantly and absurdly rigged and were never noticed or condemned by international monitors, either because of a technicality or because of geopolitical favoritism. Despite the wide range of rigging tools frequently deployed, only 20 percent of elections are condemned for cases in which significant manipulation was detected — and foreign aid was cut off following only 6 percent of all elections, suggesting that in most cases where manipulation was detected, the regime did not suffer financially.

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. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Things are going to get worse before they get better. Many western nations are turning their backs on democracy abroad. As Europe grapples with the internal challenges of Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populism in Hungary and Poland, it is less able to support democracy outside its borders in places like Madagascar and Myanmar. And the benefits of Trump’s “America First” turn are readily apparent to the counterfeit democrats of the world. Elites in the upper echelons of many governments pay close attention to what is happening in Western capitals — and Washington in particular. They take cues from the White House as a metric of what they might be able to get away with in the future. When the signals from the West clearly show an appetite for punishing those who rig elections, there is some scope for deterrence.

But instead, since Jan. 20, 2017, Trump has sent unequivocal signals to those who rig elections that they will not be punished. In fact, he has openly embraced and spoken highly of authoritarian strongmen across the globe — from China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While many Western observers were busy condemning sham elections in Turkey and Russia, Trump picked up the phone and congratulated both leaders.

And for those who want to rig elections by jailing journalists or imprisoning opponents, it’s hard to get a clearer signal than Trump’s nearly daily attacks on what he calls “fake news,” which makes the media, in his words, “the enemy of the people.”

These signals matter, and they make it harder to combat election rigging. After all, if election observers condemn an election but the president of the United States calls to congratulate the leader anyway, it undercuts the value of election monitoring and the fear of consequences among election riggers. There is a real risk that, in the future, the exposure of election rigging could pose even less of a threat to authoritarian regimes than it has in the past.

The tactics outlined here may seem new, but they are old news to the world’s dictators, despots, and counterfeit democrats. For decades, they have been fine-tuning their strategies in order to hold elections that only they can win. Over time, their trial-and-error efforts have produced rigging techniques that, unfortunately, work. The government prints the ballots, lets people show up to vote, and — almost without fail — wins and retains power. The hallmark of these elections is that we usually know who will win well before the counting ends. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.

In the 21st century, strongmen have learned that it’s easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. Right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own citizens but the international community as well. Unless we learn how to identify those strategies and address them, then the quality of elections will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call into question the basic legitimacy of democracy, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to bring change.

One of the main things that democracy has going for it today is that despite its limitations, it remains the preferred political system of most people living in Africa, Latin America, and post-communist Europe, according to surveys conducted by organizations such as the Afrobarometer and Latinobarometer. But this support has limits. If democracy continues to generate instability and tension without actually delivering accountability and inclusion, authoritarian alternatives will start to look increasingly attractive.

This article was adapted from Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas’s new book, How to Rig an Election.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics, and the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform. (@fromagehomme)

Brian Klaas is a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and the author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy. (@brianklaas)