Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Voting without democracy

Democratization might seem like a growing trend, but is it more than a facade (Potemkin democracy)?

How to steal an election
[C]rude ballot-rigging is far from extinct… Of the 70-odd states holding national elections in 2012, Freedom House, a lobby, counts only 40 as full “electoral democracies”.

For the most part, however, technology and the presence of outside observers is complicating the election-rigging business, requiring dodgy politicians to work harder and more cleverly. Most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds, says Sarah Birch of the University of Essex. She compared observer reports of 136 elections held between 1995 and 2006 and found that a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws, often as a means of deterring opposition candidates or gerrymandering unlosable constituencies…

Also more common are attempts to influence the genuine choices of voters—frequently through vote-buying, using state resources in campaigning, and exploiting partisan media…

Some fraud masquerades as incompetence. Judith Kelley at Duke University crunched American government reports on more than 1,000 elections held between 1980 and 2004. The most blatant forms of cheating were recorded, on average, in about 40% of polls, but the biggest rise in complaints concerned electoral administration. Too few voting slips, patchy voter lists, and long queues at polling stations distort elections as surely as burnt ballot boxes and bribes. Yet election observers are likely to withhold their worst scoldings if the line between cock-up and corruption is unclear…

Another dodge is to invite more than one mission. Observers disagree about a third of the time…

With so many possibilities for subtle rigging, it may seem odd that the crude stuff remains so popular. Perhaps election-rigging is a hallmark of ill-run political systems, where corrupt local officials instinctively revert to the malpractice that comes naturally. Or perhaps, since the clever stuff can go wrong, ballot-stuffing is a safety valve. Politicians in shoddy democracies are learning what leaders in real ones have long known—you can fool only some of the people, and only some of the time.

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