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.
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?”