Electoral Manipulation: Undermining Democracy and Inciting Violence

Mitchell Levinson

Bard College


Written Collaboratively with teacher/administrator Brian Mateo (Bard College).

Democratic systems have historically tried to generate popular confidence in governmental entities and encourage people to participate in the system. Despite recent worldwide reforms made to ensure free and fair elections, authoritarian governments still limit suffrage. Ballot tampering, violent boycotts, and discrimination are trends in both free and autocratic societies. The standard for elections should promise popular representation, cultivate competition, and ensure government accountability of the electoral process. The failure to ensure free and fair election has empirically resulted in the de facto establishment of a one party majority for each election. Unfair elections will promise the continuation of violent confrontations between citizens and government forces and the persistence of autocratic and kleptocratic governments.   

The most obvious outcome of electoral manipulation is the election of the candidate who received unethical and illegal support. However, less conspicuous consequences include discouraging future opposition to run for election. Until the 1990’s, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party controlled The Diet for nearly thirty-eight years. At the time, courts meekly confronted unethical forms of campaign financing and political bargains between incumbents and special interest groups. Because the LDP tightly controlled the election process, opposition parties could not thrive. The lack of competition then makes opposition groups seem more on the fringe and less trustworthy. One party systems such as those in China, Viet Nam, and Lao PDR suffer from non competition, though more in part due to government mandate.

In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro stated that some of the opposition parties will be banned from running in 2018, the same opposition parties who boycotted the October 2017 elections for electoral fraud. Citing corruption, the United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials, which heavily restrict business cooperation between the two countries. President Donald Trump has also added Venezuela to his travel ban list. The Venezuelan people will be the greatest victims of sanctions.

A history of electoral manipulation also spurs electoral “losers” and party allies to blame election outcomes on fraud, even when those claims are unwarranted. Mexico hoped to end electoral manipulation until it reformed its system of regulation in 1996. Yet in the elections of 2006 and 2012, the Federal Electoral Institute (FEI), once received with confidence among voters, drastically lost credibility after the López Obrador blamed the FEI for corruption. Days after the election, the public learned about evidence of poll officials burning ballot sheets—without a response by the FEI. Fraudulent elections in turn drained the credibility of the Mexican electoral regulation branch. For all nations, weak institutions lead to lower voter turnout and a weaker will to create institutional change in the government. Unable to measure the credibility of popular discontent, whether their discontent is more directed towards their party member’s loss or electoral manipulation, officials remain complacent about restoring voter confidence in the system. In the US 2016 election, Green Party Presidential nominee Jill Stein privately raised six million dollars to recount the votes in the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin due to election tampering by the Russians. She represented a side of the American public who were skeptical about the oversight of the election. Their distrust proves how electoral manipulation not only sways the opinion of voters; but it also causes for wasteful recourse, even if Jill Stein’s case was justified. Elsewhere, the blame game comes at the expense of general cynicism for elections.

International observers similarly criticize the November 2017 elections in Honduras. Days before the election, the Economist published a recording of plans between National Party members and polling officials to commit five different types of voter fraud in favor of the incumbent National Party President. Directly after the elections, international observers such as the Organization of American States impugned the elections for fraud. As a result, Hondurans protested and engaged in violent clashes with security forces who killed more than 30 people. The paltry response (a partial recount) from the Honduran government to allegations of electoral manipulation reveals further federal unaccountability. Azerbaijan's 2010 parliamentary elections suffered from electoral manipulation when investigated by the European Court on Human Rights. When losing candidates officially petitioned the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) about electoral manipulation, the CEC dismissed the formal complaints for being subjective. The complaints made it to the Supreme Court without a formal investigation in response.

Hacking elections and voter manipulation using social media have recently been very effective tools to covertly prop up candidates desired by perpetrators. Heather A. Konley in The Kremlin Playbook highlights the cyber hacking strategies Russia has used to influence elections in Scandinavia and Western Europe. In the United States, the Kremlin planted fake news about President Trump’s opposition on social media. Using proxies on the Dark Web, Russia can influence politics and plausibly deny their actions because the subcontracts are difficult to trace back to the Kremlin. In the French 2017 elections, Russian sponsored hackers released emails from the En Marche! Party to sway the election results. The campaign responded with a statement saying, "Intervening in the last hour of an official campaign, this operation clearly seeks to destabilize democracy, as already seen in the United States' last presidential campaign.”

Russia’s influence on European elections can also be more overt. Russia benefits from influencing elections in Montenegro and Moldova to retain its so-called “sphere of privileged interests” and push Western Power structures such as NATO away from its border. Russia keeps connections to private interest groups who can influence elections with money or by propping up far right, nationalist groups (e.g. Alternative for Germany, Five Star Movement in Italy) to prioritize Russian interests. Doing so deters targeted countries from democratization that might perhaps influence the pace at which Russians demand a greater liberal democracy at home.

Violence is often the desired recourse for populations who feel cheated out of fair elections, worsening the state of free and fair elections. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycott (including traffic blockades, attacks on schools, and the targeting of election officials) in Bangladesh’s parliamentary election of 2014 caused low voter turnout (30%) and uncontested MP positions. Security forces responded violently, a trend among many nations. In Syria, security forces were responsible for the killings of Syrians protestors after Bashar al-Assad’s presidential win in 2014. The UN and others called out the elections for manipulation because polling locations were limited to all areas except where millions of opposition members and allies lived.

Scholars use electoral forensics (statistical analysis) to measure irregularities in voting counts after elections. Unfortunately, statistics fail to detect the use of coercive tactics, voter buying, or negotiations with special interest groups. Electoral forensics, however, has shed light on some remedies for voter fraud including distributing tally locations among many precincts, thereby, creating need for more modern technology and electoral observers. Scholars also recommend a greater distribution of “resources” (e.g. campaign subsidies) among political parties to create a more equal race. Fraudulent elections empirically decrease in the long term. Japan created public subsidy programs in an effort to eliminate political favoring for the largest funders of campaign financing. The Law on Public Funding for Political Parties grants public subsidies to campaigns to eliminate the need for massive amounts of campaign funding.

To experience real change towards fair voter representation, nations must improve transparency in their elections. Iran’s elections through 2016 have not provided online public records of results and prohibit international and domestic watchdog groups for monitor. The Guardian Council, a 12-member panel of Islamic jurists, vetted each candidate for parliament, putting the integrity of the election in question. Moreover, although South East Asia had the worst rating of electoral integrity around the world according to a 2014 Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Report, Indonesia offers a promising outlook on transparency from the growing presence of civil society organizations. Neutral electoral commissions must also be apart of a federal investigation into corrupt electoral practices.

The international community must put pressure on nations who neutralize opposition parties. Internally, Russia’s elections have long been an act of political theatre, where ballot stuffing and squashing political competition has not seen change. Alexei Navalny’s anti corruption protests evince a popular demand to challenge the status quo in Russia. In response to Russia and other foreign agents who attack elections in cyberspace, nations must build better networks for cyber infrastructure. This year, G-7 and G-20 nations have committed to greater cyber security infrastructure after a 2017 report came out from the Global Cybersecurity Index which states “everything from national critical infrastructure to our basic human rights can be compromised” by cyber attacks.

Keeping the status quo runs the risk of completely losing popular trust in our institutions. Without united responses, societies have suffered from massive brain drains, parliamentary gridlock, and violent opposition. Electoral reforms will provide opportunities for a high standard of representation in democracies and shun the proliferation of authoritarian regimes.  

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