Crunching numbers and spotting trends for safer elections

By Jillian Slutzker

September 2, 2016

Q&A with professor and electoral violence expert Sarah Birch

If the election is close, competitive and the stakes are high, then it would make sense for some actors to invest in any means they have at their disposal including violence.”

Sarah Birch, electoral violence expert

Data being gathered in a global study could help to make elections safer, fairer and more transparent.

More than halfway into the three-year Explaining and Mitigating Electoral Violence project, Professor Sarah Birch and her team of researchers at the University of Glasgow have gathered electoral violence data from national elections from 1995 to 2012 in more than 167 countries—and they are already seeing important trends.

Along with electoral conflict expert Jeff Fischer, Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International, they are analyzing systemic patterns in election-related violence and its causes that will generate insights for practitioners on the ground aiming to prevent and mitigate these outbreaks.

A second dataset aims to use data-mining techniques to code digital media, such as tweets, blogs and online news posts, for specific incidents of electoral violence on a micro-level.

While collaborating on the research questions and theory, Birch oversees the data collection, while Creative’s Fischer works with the community of electoral security practitioners to identify their needs and help inform the project with their on-the-ground implementation experience.

“When you spend a lot of time number crunching, collecting data and reading articles you do start to pull away sometimes, so it is necessary constantly to reengage with the practitioner community and find out what the new developments are and get feedback from them,” says Birch. “It is an active process; you have to actively seek to build those links and maintain them so you can stay in touch.”

Birch shared her insights on the project’s findings to date and her hopes for translating research into effective violence prevention interventions for states, security practitioners and electoral management bodies on the ground.

What is the most surprising finding of the project to date?

Birch: There is a perception or at least an assumption in a lot of the literature that most electoral violence takes place in Africa, but from the data we’re collecting it seems that is not actually true.

Electoral violence takes place all over the world. It’s as prevalent, or even more so, in the Middle East and Asia as in Africa. We found that at least in the data we’ve collected so far, it seems that scholars have been neglecting other parts of the world.

It does seem to be the case that in some regions of the world there is more continuity from one election to another, whereas in other regions it is “spikier”, so all of a sudden there will be a violent election and then other elections are quite lacking in violence.

Who are the perpetrators?

Birch: Our dataset breaks actors down into state and non-state actors. We’ve found that most electoral violence is perpetrated by state actors. Interestingly a lot of electoral violence perpetrated by state actors is perpetrated against other state actors, so it might be the national level state actors perpetrating violence against local state actors.

However, most state violence is perpetrated against non-state actors, and state actors commit more violence than non-state actors in a global perspective.

Are there types of violence state actors are more likely to perpetrate?

Birch: State actors are more likely to threaten and less likely to actually cause bodily harm, whereas non-state actors are much less likely to threaten. They just go in and do things that cause bodily harm.

The state does a lot of posturing to coerce and intimidate people and is less likely to engage in the types of violence that hurts people, whereas non-state actors are less likely to bother with threats. Theirs is often sporadic violence like riots or fights that break out.

What factors can help predict when electoral violence might occur?

Birch: The two factors that best predict when violence is likely to occur are the closeness of the race and political exclusion. This might be a state that systematically excludes a certain ethnic group from power or that has a large amount of electoral malpractice so people are excluded by a lack of a free and fair election, or even an electoral boycott, which is self-exclusion.

These forms of exclusion raise the stakes of an election because they mean that whoever wins controls of those institutions is able to maintain that exclusion.

In a lot of these countries, if you lose the election, you are at risk of being put in jail or possibly being killed or exiled. Your political party could be quite seriously victimized or dismantled.

There is also often a close link between politics and the economy due to corruption, so often the group excluded from political power is also excluded from opportunities in the private sector. Being excluded from political power is much more detrimental to someone’s overall wellbeing as a human being and a politician than it would be in a democracy.

If the election is close, competitive and the stakes are high, then it would make sense for some actors to invest in any means they have at their disposal including violence.

What do these predictive factors indicate for practitioners?

Birch: As countries become more competitive and democratized—which is basically of course a good thing—practitioners should be aware of the possibility for electoral violence, whereas in a country that hasn’t been so competitive this wasn’t such a feature.

In races that are very close, that’s when practitioners need to be especially vigilant.

Sarah Birch (above, right) with Jeff Fischer (above, left) revealed early research findings from the project at the launch of the Electoral Violence Affinity Group meeting in Washington, D.C. in February. Photo by Ursala Knudsen-Latta, Alliance for Peacebuilding.

It is also important to focus on institutional reform and work on types of preventive measures with actors to create a more inclusive systems and institutions that will include all ethnic groups. This will lower the stakes and lower the perception that if they don’t win the election then that’s it.

This can be done by holding presidential and legislative elections on the same day. An interesting finding from some of the recent work I’ve done is that you’d think more elections means more potential for violence. But in fact they’re less violent because there are opportunities to win in different races.

Introducing types of power-sharing institutions is another way of lowering stakes and including more people to potentially prevent electoral violence.

Are there connections between electoral malpractice and electoral violence?

Birch: Corruption, civil society organization, inequality and media freedom are four big factors that are drivers of electoral malpractice. Those also are drivers of electoral violence.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that corruption and violence may be substitutes. Whereas corruption quite clearly causes most forms of electoral malpractice, it might be that state actors at least are choosing between a menu of different things—buying peoples’ votes or bumping them on the head.

How can datamining help detect and/or mitigate electoral violence?

Birch: This is the area that is the most experimental. [With our micro-level dataset] we are hoping to collect not just individual bits of info about electoral violence (from tweets, blogs and other sources), but to actually use these bit of information to identify incidents.

It’s a way of trying to understand the spatial and temporal dynamics of electoral violence. If it is breaking out here, where do we expect it to spread and in what time frame? Does it spread like a stain or does it jump from city to city or along transport routes? How quickly does it spread?

Potentially, we would like to understand country specific patterns about these things so practitioners can see what’s starting to happen and be aware of what might start next.

What is your hope for the project?

Birch: There will be scholarly impacts and practical impacts. We will have a better understanding of the drivers of electoral violence, and the practitioner community will have a better understanding of the types of strategies and interventions that are most successful and most efficient with limited resources in given contexts.

Sarah Birch is currently a professor at King’s College London, where she supports the Explaining and Mitigating Electoral Project. At the time of this writing, she supported the project from the University of Glasgow.

To learn more about the Explaining and Mitigating Electoral Violence Project or to read the blog, visit:

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