Book Extract: ‘How to rig an election: Tricks despots play’  

There is an increase in number of elections, yet the world is less democratic, say the authors. Select extracts from the book that deals with how despots steal mandates around the world

Representative Image (Social Media)
Representative Image (Social Media)

Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas

The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic. Nowadays, elections are held almost everywhere. The vast majority of governments at least go through the motions of election campaigns, and are rhetorically committed to allowing citizens to cast ballots to choose the leaders who will govern them. However, in many places, that choice is little more than an illusion: the contest is rigged from the start. This is not to say that all elections are rigged, or that authoritarian leaders rely on rigging alone to win. In reality, savvy autocrats understand that it is far easier to fix the election result if they enjoy significant public support, and that small amounts of rigging are far easier to hide. Election rigging is therefore only one of the tools used by effective dictators. However, this caveat notwithstanding, it remains an essential weapon in the despot’s arsenal


If gerrymandering has this profound impact on the quality of the political process in the United States, the consequences can be even more severe in divided societies with a history of political violence and winner-takes-all politics. One of the problems in countries such as India, Kenya and Thailand is that all too often leaders explicitly promise to favour their own ethnic, religious or regional groups in the distribution of state resources. What these countries need in order to build more- inclusive and stable political systems is leaders willing to compromise and listen to the needs and concerns of citizens from rival parties and communities.

Outside the United States, many countries have put measures in place to try to avoid or mitigate gerrymandering. The Australian Electoral Commission, for instance, is an independent federal agency charged with drawing district boundaries in Australia, thereby limiting partisan influence. Similarly, in India, the world’s largest democracy, albeit a fragile one, the rules of the Boundary Delimitation Commission prohibit anyone with political ties from serving on the commission and state that two of the three members must be judges.

Buying votes

The prevalence of vote buying in many new multiparty systems is one reason why the cost of election campaigns is so high and continues to rise. In Kenya, the total cost of the contest and campaigns for the six positions up for grabs on election day was estimated to be around $1 billion in 2017. Even governors at the county level spend in excess of $6 million to win competitive seats. In India, politicians spent an estimated $5 billion in campaigning for the 2014 elections, a figure second only to the exorbitant total cost of American elections.

Hacking the machine

The convenience of (internet) connectivity provides a huge vulnerability, and the Harvard researchers have demonstrated that many of the machines do not have strong encryption on their internet networks; some do not have any encryption whatsoever and are completely open – the electronic equivalent of an open door with a sign reading ‘Hackers welcome!’

Others can be infiltrated physically, for example by simply sticking a USB stick loaded with malicious code or software into the machine. But despite a series of teams exposing these vulnerabilities, they persist. And while there is no clear evidence to date of this type of manipulation having taken place in American elections, unless the problem is urgently addressed it is only a matter of time. This is only the tip of the iceberg: keep in mind that countries with far fewer resources than the United States or India are even more vulnerable to voting machines being manipulated.

The smartest way to rig an election is to do so before the ballots have even been printed. If you have to resort to rigging with henchmen and ballot boxes, you’ve already failed. Today, the most effective autocrats steal elections well before polling day.

Russia’s politicians learnt this lesson long ago. In the 1998 St Petersburg local assembly elections, incumbent Oleg Sergeyev proved to be quite a thorn in the side of Governor Vladimir Yakovlev and challenged his political dominance.

A populist operating in a semi-authoritarian political system, Yakovlev did not take opposition lightly. Knowing that the country’s limited civil society and inconsistently implemented rule of law would not stand in his way, he allegedly moved to neutralize those who sought to oppose him. Thus, when Sergeyev launched his re-election bid, he was surprised to learn the names of two of his opponents: Oleg Sergeyev and Oleg Sergeyev. The former was a pensioner, the latter an unemployed man. Neither had any qualifications for the office they were seeking. But they had been handpicked for one key characteristic: their names. When voters arrived in the ballot box, they were unsure which Sergeyev was their candidate of choice. Many cast ballots for the ‘wrong’ Sergeyev, exactly as was intended.

There is a sort of amusingly ingenious quality to this form of rigging, but pre-election rigging is rarely funny. Counterfeit democrats use a wide range of strategies to hold onto power that have negative social and political impacts, including vote buying and violence. Indeed, before the recruitment of the two decoy Oleg Sergeyevs, the tactics used against their namesake were far more sinister. Unnamed men attacked Sergeyev with rubber truncheons and left him for dead. He survived, barely, and spent two months in hospital recovering from broken ribs and a fractured skull. When the regime failed to kill him or scare him into withdrawing, it sought out people who shared his name.

Oiling the right constituency

On 22 April 2013, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda calmly walked onstage to address a crowd of thousands who had gathered in the Busoga region, in the southeast of the country near the source of the Nile. To audible gasps, he announced that he had come to make a donation of $100,000 to a local youth group.

As the crowd went wild, a member of the security forces came forward with a large white sack containing the cash, which Museveni proceeded to hand over to a member of the Busoga Youth Forum – who struggled under its weight as he carried it away.

Despite the clear impact of this gesture on his audience, Museveni was not finished. The same day, he handed over a minibus, a truck and fifteen motorcycles to local leaders and communities.

That evening, he left Busoga fêted as a hero – a man willing not only to dedicate his life to public service but also to use his own resources to help his fellow countrymen. Museveni knew the feeling well: handing out gifts had become an established practice of his presidency, having previously given $58,000 to the Uganda Journalists Association and $20,000, again in cash, to Namirembe Cathedral for renovations.

Use of violence

Recent research suggests that authoritarian leaders are most likely to employ electoral violence under two conditions. First, incumbents are far more likely to lash out when they operate in weak political systems and believe that they might actually lose.

Dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have come up with solutions to this apparent catch-22. Sometimes they make use of shadowy militias and gangs in order for the government to generate ‘plausible deniability’.

By constructing a ‘shadow state’ made up of groups that are widely known to be answerable to the ruling party but which cannot easily be identified as belonging to the police force or the security forces, authoritarian leaders can avoid international condemnation, and minimize the threat of prosecution by bodies such as the International Criminal Court. When the shadow state strikes, the regime can pretend it was not involved – but opposition forces still get the message.

Other regimes respond to growing discontent by deploying an intense period of violence that is so visceral and painful that it remains in the public imagination long after it has taken place. Once this has been done, beatings and murder may not be required on a regular basis, because people can easily be reminded of what happened in the past – and the potential for it to happen again.

In other words, once a pattern of repression has been established, it becomes possible to sustain it in a manner that is relatively low key – censoring the media, denying permits for opposition rallies, arresting potential ‘troublemakers’ – thus generating the benefits of violence without the associated costs. All it takes is a gentle reminder of the brutality that is possible. People who survive state violence tend to have long memories.

The digital game and fake news

Given the vulnerabilities exposed by digital innovation in elections, it is sobering to reflect that the digital revolution was initially widely hailed as the great democratizing force – a gamechanger that would put citizens on an equal footing with despots. Digital information flows, it was often argued, would be harder to control. To some, that meant that autocrats would have to be on the defensive, as pundits predicted that tyrants would be toppled by tweets and the abuses of autocrats would be exposed on Facebook.

This optimism was not completely misplaced, but enthusiasm for democracy’s digital revolution failed to accurately anticipate that digital platforms would simply become a new battleground, rather than a weapon to be wielded exclusively against counterfeit democrats. Indeed, despots have proved remarkably adept at using cyberspace to their advantage, finding new ways to use digital tools to rig elections.

Unfortunately, the rise of fake news typically also undermines public confidence in key institutions, including both the traditional media and elements of the state itself. When it becomes difficult to discern what is true and what is false, citizens begin to place less trust in official institutions. While it is clear that the public is capable of dis-aggregating more and less reliable sources of information, there is also evidence that, overall, fake news has had the effect of increasing public scepticism and eroding the capacity of specific institutions to serve as accepted authorities.

(Excerpted from the book with permission from the publisher)

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Published: 24 May 2019, 3:56 PM