Dangers to democracy: How election systems may be susceptible to “rigging”

By Jeffrey Carlson

November 2, 2016   |   0 comments

IMG_3853 What constitutes electoral malpractice, otherwise known as “rigging” an election?

It includes a wide range of illegal, illicit and even violent practices designed to influence the outcome of an election to “substitute personal or partisan benefit for the public interest,” according to Sarah Birch, Professor at King’s College London. Such attempts to influence the outcome of an election may be systemic or isolated instances, and the perpetrators are constantly refining their techniques.

While the range of tactics employed to undermine democratic electoral processes remains consistent across the world, the use of violence appears to be more common in Africa and the Middle East, whereas the manipulation of resources appears to be more common in the more developed democracies of Western Europe and the Americas.

One thing is certain, electoral malpractice must be addressed in a timely manner to prevent its spread throughout the system of governance.

Shifting tactics require a holistic approach

What worked for the perpetrators of electoral malpractice in one election might not work in another. They employ a wide variety of tactics to overcome new laws, regulations and practices designed to stop fraud.

Electoral malpractice—a very serious concern during an electoral campaign, voting day operations, vote count and tabulation, among other periods of the electoral cycle—falls into four categories, according to the independent U.S. Election Assistance Commission. These include failures or refusals to act in a wide range of areas from voter registration manipulation to refusal to consider electoral dispute adjudication claims; acts of deception from “padding” voter registers to falsification of results; acts of coercion including violence and intimidation; and acts of destruction from polling station capture to stealing and spoiling ballots.

Efforts to detect and prevent fraud might address one area of malpractice, but perpetrators are constantly shifting tactics. For example, if ballot stuffing and poll worker bribery is effectively being addressed, as it is in many countries, then perpetrators might shift to vote buying, illegal campaign funding or violence.
Therefore, a more holistic approach is arguably required to investigate, understand and address the opportunities for and tactics of fraud employed in a given country.

Deploying electoral integrity agents

One thing is certain, electoral malpractice must be addressed in a timely manner to prevent its spread throughout the system of governance.

While the perpetrators of malpractice innovate so to must the electoral integrity system, which is a critical feature of a functioning oversight system that includes “electoral integrity agents.”

These agents include governmental enforcement institutions, such as election management bodies, investigatory bodies and prosecutorial bodies; social enforcement institutions, including political parties, “watchdog” organizations, nongovernmental organizations and media; and international assistance and electoral observation organizations supporting these electoral integrity agents.

With an understanding of the types of electoral malpractice, the profile of the perpetrators ranging from party agents to organized crime to disenfranchised youth, and the timing of their illegal or illicit practices, electoral integrity agents can prioritize and target appropriate responses and interventions that seek to prevent malpractice through efforts such as stakeholder education and audits of voters’ lists.

They can take measures to mitigate malpractice through initiatives such as developing or enhancing political finance transparency mechanisms, streamlining complaints procedures and undertaking real-time enforcement. They can also deter malpractice through efforts such as introducing or enhancing effective and timely election dispute resolution and post-election prosecution, sanctions and penalties.

Preventing, mitigating and deterring malpractice

Let’s review three examples of how electoral integrity agents can interact to prevent, mitigate and deter electoral malpractice.

First, in the case of preventing fraud such as ballot stuffing, multiple voting or voter impersonation that can stem from an incomplete, inaccurate or falsified voter registry, the electoral management body might take steps to ensure accuracy in the voters’ list through an audit and making the list open to public scrutiny.

This would allow political parties and civil society to conduct their own audits and challenge any inaccuracies or duplications. The judiciary would then play a role in adjudicating these challenges. While ensuring an accurate list makes it harder to conduct certain types of fraud, this effort will also enhance the credibility of the final list.

Second, to mitigate campaign finance abuses, political finance regulators might undertake the regular collection and auditing of campaign financial reports that are disclosed to the public. Media, civil society groups and political parties could then review the reports and could lodge official complaints with the appropriate body.

At the same time, the political finance regulator or other investigatory body could identify any abuses and either handle them administratively or prosecute criminal transgressions through the courts. Such steps could identify and discourage illegal or illicit uses of campaign money by political actors during the campaign period.

Third, the deterrence of future acts of electoral malpractice, according to ACE: The Electoral Knowledge Network, requires active, impartial and timely enforcement of the laws by investigative agencies and investigators free from political interference and with enough independence to initiate and thoroughly investigate allegations of electoral malpractice or other related illegal activities.

Taking these steps in a robust manner that protects the rights of whistle-blowers, witnesses and the accused presents a credible and effective process that will cause perpetrators to think twice before engaging in vote fraud or other illegal activities.

Finally, there is a significant role to be played by the international community, as well as domestic groups, in monitoring the electoral process across the electoral cycle. More importantly international community-led interventions to support electoral integrity agents should augment conventional technical assistance approaches and effectively confront the very different types of challenges facing electoral processes around the world.

Jeffrey Carlson is Director of Electoral Education & Integrity at Creative Associates International.

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