EVENT TRANSCRIPT: HOW TO RIG AN ELECTION
DATE: 5PM-6PM 23RD AUGUST 2018
VENUE: MILLBANK TOWER, WESTMINSTER, SW1P 4RS
SPEAKER: PROFESSOR NIC CHEESEMAN AND DR BRIAN KLASS
Instead of listening to us if we get bored, but we’re very grateful to be here and of course being here at the heart of power is the perfect place to have an event on a book called “How to Rig an Election.” This book some of you will know that we’ve spent much of the last ten years of our lives watching the elections and in some ways trying to help strengthen elections in different parts of the world.
I’ve recently come back from Zimbabwe and we can have a discussion of Zimbabwe in the Q&A if you want. Brian has just come back from (inaudible) and we can talk about that and other cases if you’re interested. Where we basically work with and for election groups, social society groups, trying to strengthen elections. And this particular book came out of a puzzle that we noticed a long time ago and it sort of came out of an experience that I had in Kenya in 2007-8, where there was a process that most people felt of a rigged election. And the election was rigged in such a way that the counting process of the election took a very, very long time. And the suspicion was that the long time that was being taken was deliberate to allow the government to work out exactly how many votes it needed to add and then add them to win the vote. And the process was so chaotic and so long that it actually started to be criticised by the opposition and by international observers before it had come to fruition. And I walked into a bar only to find two of the people advising the government on their strategy who were shaking their heads. And I asked them “why?” Why were they so upset with what was going on? And they said that this wasn’t what they’d advised at all, this was how amateurs rig elections. And it triggered a thought in our minds, right, which was “what’s the right way to rig an election and what’s the bad way to rig an election?” And this book kind of starts from that puzzle, but when we started writing the book we found something that in some ways was much more interesting and much more alarming than that which was a story about the nature of elections in democracy in the contemporary world.
So the book starts with a good news story: there are more elections than ever before, more competitive multi-party elections than ever before. But it also starts with a warning as most of you will know the world is becoming less democratic and the book starts with this as a kind of paradox. Right? The paradox of our times where democracy is concerned is we have more elections being held than ever before, which you might think would be a good thing for democracy, accountability, transparency, popular participation and yet democracy is sliding globally.
Just to show you what that looks like (graph) the number of elections per year according to the (inaudible) data set has gone from around 30 elections per year in 1946 all the way up to something close to 80 elections per year in 2011/2012. It’s worth noting, and a lot of people don’t know this, the vast majority of these elections are observed by one group or another. So you will remember that number of almost 80 elections per year, you’ll see that in 2011-12 almost 80 elections were monitored by an international group. So not only do we have more elections than ever before, but we have more elections being monitored by teams than ever before.
And yet, we have had twelve years of sustained democratic decline. Now I don’t want to spend a lot of time right now talking about how we measure democracy, how we define it about the different ways we can categorise it. The critical point is almost any democracy measure you take, whether you take the economy’s development, democracy index, whether you take freedom house, whether you take polity whether you take other Americanisms coming out of the new varieties of democracy data set – whichever one you take shows pretty much the same thing which is a decline in democracy year on year.
What you can see in the graph that we’ve put up here is the red line is the number of countries that are moving towards authoritarianism in the world and the blue line is the number of countries that are moving towards democracy in the world. And you can see that every year for the last twelve years the blue line has been higher and higher every year. Now this is happening for different reasons in different places, one of the things we start the book by pointing out is that we need to start disaggregating what is going on in the world. There’s a tendency in the last ten years to kind of homogenise global experiences and then try and generate solutions based on that. Which is flawed, right? So a good example is there is a rise of populism. How do we deal with populism? And you’ll get editors in newspapers talking about the rise of populism and the solution to populism. But as you all know because you came to this talk and therefore you are above average, on that basis you know that the rise of populism in the United States had completely different drivers to the rise of populism of that in the United Kingdom, which has fundamentally different drivers to the rise of populism in South Africa. And actually unless we understand those drivers we don’t understand what’s going on.
The same is true with democracy. So what we see in certain, established democracies is people losing faith in existing systems that have worked well but people are beginning to disengage. That’s a fundamentally different process to what’s happening in somewhere like Zimbabwe right now in a country that has not established high quality democracy. So the decline of democracy in some states is from a very high base and its worth noting that The Economist downgraded America from being a democracy to being a flawed democracy last year on the basis of falling public support and failing institutions. But there’s a very different model going on for what scientists like to call competitive authoritarian states – that’s an ugly term, what does it mean? It means states that hold elections but don’t have the other trappings of democracy. In the book we call this “Counterfeit Democracies” because we think it’s a better, more catchy term and gets us away from some of the academic jargon. And most of the stories we talk about in the book are essentially countries that have introduced elections but in which quality democracies have never actually been established. What do elections look like in countries like that? One of the things that’s a consequence of a decline in quality of democracy is that these are often elections without change. We know that globally win far more elections than they lose, right? This is as true as it is in the United States as it is in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia. If you look here, you can see the percentage of elections that were lost by incumbents i.e. won by the opposition every year from 1940 to the present day. It went up a little bit in the 1990s, but generally speaking the opposition wins between 20-30% of elections in any given year. So the ruling party is winning 70-80% of elections in a given year. But if we move to the world’s new democracies, the place where most of these counterfeit democracies are to be found, the rate of electoral change is much, much lower. This is the percentage of elections lost in sub-Saharan Africa from 1960 to the present day. As you would expect in the dark authoritarian years, the number of elections lost by established governments was pretty low. There was a spike in the early 1990s when the reintroduction of elections led to the over further unpopular regimes in a number of countries Benin 1991, Zambia 1991 – but very quickly, authoritarian leaders learned how to contain elections and instead of sub-Saharan Africa we’re almost back to the same turnover of opposition victories as we were in 1961.
One of the things that really surprised us when we started writing the book, was how bad elections are in lots of places. A lot have come from a background in sub-Saharan Africa and you kind of assume that African elections might be worse than elections elsewhere. We’ve been in lots of elections, if you read the media, you generally get a sense that African elections are particularly problematic. The data actually suggests that this is fundamentally not true, in fact African elections are pretty much on a par with elections in Asia, the Middle East and post-Soviet Europe. What this shows you is a database of people put together by the people at the Election Integrity Project who have used election reports for every election in the world that they have the reports available on to code elections from 0 to 10. 10 being the best possible election, 0 being the worst possible election. Now you might have some question marks about how good those reports are and how good that coding is, but what’s fairly clear from their reports is elections in the rest of the world are systematically of a very poor standard and actually that elections in sub-Saharan Africa are not necessarily worse than elections elsewhere. In fact, and we can go into this in a Q&A if you’re interested, certain forms of election manipulation such as use of violence are significantly higher in post-communist Europe than they are in sub-Saharan Africa.
This got us thinking, what explains why leaders want to stay in power? What is it that explains why we can’t have good quality elections? What is it that explains why it’s so hard for a President whose losing an election to leave? What you usually find in a lot of the literature is that the explanation will be corruption – there’s so much money to be made by being in power that leaders are so desperate to stay that they actually want to stay as a result of the corruption. It’s a kind of egotistical thing. Leaders get big headed, power corrupts them, corruption means that you need to stay in power to sustain the lifestyle. But the research we do in the book, and we devote a section of this in the Introduction tells a very different story. The best correlation for leaders trying to stay in power beyond their time is not the level of corruption or the person (inaudible) it’s actually questions about the safety of leaders and the strengths of political institutions. What we find, is that leaders who have a reasonably well-founded fear of being prosecuted or persecuted after giving up power. This might be, for example the International Criminal Court might bring a charge against you for a crime against humanity. It might be that you have done corrupt dealings and therefore you fear that the government that comes after you will take away your money. It could potentially be that you’re also very worried about protecting people within the security forces that have done the dirty work for you and that puts pressure on you. But that set of factors turns out to be much more effective as a predictor of whether or not a leader tries to rig an election. And just to give you a figure, in sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 2010 we find that 43% of leaders who voluntarily lose power suffer one of: being forced into exile; being prosecuted for a crime; or otherwise being economically persecuted within the country after leaving office. Or killed.
So one of the things that we start from in the book is the point that we need to understand that election rigging in this context is not necessarily simply driven by greed, neither is election rigging random or irrational. It’s often a rational reaction by leaders to a structure in which they find themselves. And these structures are typically weak institutions that incumbents know will not protect them when they leave office because of course they’ve been kept deliberately weak to allow for manipulation out of context where there’s low level of trust between rival leaders.
So how do you rig an election in that context? So most of the cases we talk about in the book, as I said, are in this kind of counterfeit democracy zone. These are countries that have introduced multi-party elections and speak the language of democracy but in most states they have not achieved a high quality of democracy and declined, they are rather states that introduced elections and never really achieved a high quality of democracy in the first place.
And we talk about a “Dictator’s Toolbox”. The toolbox has six different strategies and each of the chapters in the book details how to make one of these strategies work. Now the crucial thing about the toolbox is that it allows the leaders great flexibility – it’s a set of different tools that can be used interchangeably so they can be substituted for one another. And what we show in the book is that depending on the context of which an individual is operating, they use different of these strategies to get the job done. Certain leaders, for example Putin, someone like Umami, who have different kinds of resources at their available. For example, in Umami’s case, genocide guilt, in Putin’s case natural resources and economic power – don’t worry so much about elections being clearly fraudulent, because their vulnerability internationally and domestically is so reduced that it’s not a major concern for them. So the strategies they use in the toolbox are very different.
Governments we see in places like Malawi, Zambia, Sierra Leon – the dominant aided countries that are very susceptible to international pressure opt out of those strategies into much more subtle ones in an attempt to get the job done but in a much more sensible way that goes under the radar of international criticism.
What we do in the book is we divide up two different types of rigging. So we go all the way back to the Kenyan example I was talking about and we talk about strategic and non-strategic rigging. Non-strategic rigging is what these guys in the bar were shaking their head about, this is the way the amateurs do it. The last minute rigging when you’ve clearly left things too late. The government doesn’t have popularity and you need to do things like rigging the ballot box. The obvious strategies that you will find here are the widespread use of violence and repression. This is usually a terrible option, right? And it’s also unnecessary, if you use this kind of strategy, if you put the military on the streets and beat people up it becomes incredibly hard for international observers not to talk about it – you’re more likely to get on the front page of The Washington Post or The New York Times. You’re more likely to end up on the front page of the BBC. So what we’ve seen over the last twenty years, and we show this in the book quite carefully, is a process of authoritarian learning. Authoritarian leaders have learned how to reproduce the same kind of effects on us at elections but in ways that have become much harder for us to detect.
A fantastic example which comes from Zimbabwe is shaking the match box. So I was kept in these interviews in Zimbabwe and asking people you know “what’s going on? What’s the environment?” And they would say to me, well there’s not much actual violence but they’re shaking the matchbox. So as an academic you don’t want to admit to not knowing what something means, so when I got back home I asked some of my friends “what does shaking the matchbox mean?” It means that if you burn someone’s house down once for not voting for you, you don’t have to burn it down again. Because if you stand outside someone’s house shaking a matchbox, the person inside gets the message. In other words, if you commit an act of violence once, you don’t necessarily need to repeat the violence – you can do something much more sudden. And this is what we saw in the last election in Zimbabwe.
We actually saw what people in Zimbabwe came to talk about, a subtle violence. So we had focus groups which were held by the National Demographic Institute of the United States. And people asked, what kind of violence have you experience? Have you experienced brutality? Have you experienced an attack? No. What have you experienced? We’ve experienced subtle violence. What does that mean? It’s the little bits of violence that occur on a day-to-day basis that make you aware of how vulnerable you are that remind you of what happened to you last time you didn’t vote for the ruling party. That remind you what happened to other people in the community the last time they didn’t vote for the ruling party. But they don’t involve any violence, they involve the threat or anticipation of violence. In some cases, the explicit rejection – we will protect you so long as. But there are constant reminders of your vulnerability on your independence and the good will of the people around you. And this was the thing that they kept coming back to us with – we’re not experiencing real violence, we’re experiencing subtle violence. That violence will not appear in a major way in the reports by international observers. Because it’s almost impossible to report effectively on subtle violence that is implied and done through intimidation. Because there’s no pictures, there’s no evidence and there’s no headlines.
Of course the other strategy which is obvious and what was being done in the Kenya case is simply stuffing the ballot box. This is the age old strategy. But it’s actually a strategy that almost all good authoritarian leaders no longer do anymore. If you talked to an authoritarian president about someone who stuffs the ballot box, he’ll shake his head and say “that guy’s an amateur, he needs to come to school.” Because what you’ll see nowadays is that the election will be rigged so far ahead of time that the need for ballot box stuffing does not exist. And I would predict we haven’t yet got there in Zimbabwe. But I would predict what we would find in the Zimbabwean election, for example, is that the opposition find it almost impossible to demonstrate that the election was rigged on the day through ballot box stuffing because in fact the way the government controlled the electoral process was done significantly ahead of time through strategies like subtle violence. So the people could be allowed to do it on the day and therefore get the same result the government wanted without the risk of defeat, but without needing to rig on the day therefore making it much harder for the opposition to launch an effective petition.
DR BRIAN KLASS:
Thanks, Nick. So I’m going to talk about strategic rigging the way that the pros do it. And there’s this sort of sweet spot of an authoritarian leader hoping to rig an election and get away with it that you’re after. And that is a highly effective but either invisible or not illegal form of election rigging and some of the examples I’m talking about are clearly illegitimate but not necessarily illegal. And that line is one that these leaders dance on because they’re trying to find ways they can get away with it without condemnation by the international community which often is legally minded. And they’re coming up with innovative ways that end up like this process of ‘whack a mole’ where the election monitors get better at figuring out one form of rigging only to have a new innovative tactic crop up. So, does anyone know what this is?
DR BRIAN KLASS:
Yes! I’m always amazed when someone knows this! This is one of the most professional ways to rig an election and it’s a point that we come back to because we also want to make the point of – and we do this in the book – that election rigging is not just something that happens out there. Not just in poor quality democracies, it is also in established democracies. This is the congressional district in Illinois that is colloquially referred to as “Latin Earmuffs” because it links up two Spanish blocks of voters. Some parts are literally a road, and its drawn specifically with demographic and partisan trends in mind. Now this is not an aberration, there are a serious number of states in the United States effectively where the partisan control of the governorship ends up creating a system where they’re able to draw their own districts for the next ten years. Now that has origins from the 1812 election in Massachusetts where Elbridge Jerry, the governor of Massachusetts drew districts that one political cartoonist said looked like a salamander hence Jerry Mander. And it stuck. But it’s become a mainstream tactic, not just in the United States, but in other parts of the world. What it means though is that the quality of the elections themselves, and the quality of democracy subsequently suffers. So this statistic refers to the average margin of victory in the 435 house races that were held in 2016 in the United States. 37.1%. Which is close to an average landslide of a 70/30 election between the Republican and the Democrat one way or another. And what that means is that most people in power in Congress right now, especially in the House have nothing to fear from defeat from the other party. They only have to fear a primary challenger somebody who’s further to the left or right. And this goes a long way in explaining why the Republican party will not break with Trump because the majority of people in the House are people who understand that if they do break with him they will be defeated by a primary challenger from the right but they couldn’t possibly lose their district in an election to a democrat. And again, this is a link that keeps on coming back, of how rigging tactics to win an election end up subverting democracy in between elections. You also have problems in the United States with things like voter suppression. So the historical legacy of this is obviously Jim Crow, but nowadays there are more subtle but still effective ways of restricting voting rights in places that are predominantly minority. This is a map of places where there was a push in 2017 to restrict voting rights – either by increasing the burden of proof in terms of how voters are able to prove their identity or by reducing precincts in heavily minority areas so this is an ongoing process. That’s why the election in Georgia where the Democratic candidate is an African American woman and one of the heavily democratic areas in the state also heavily African American areas of the state is facing a proposal to close 7 out of the 9 precincts. Now this translates into real costs, so there is research that shows that minority voters in the United States are six times more likely than white voters to have to wait in line for more than an hour to vote. And sometimes up to ffive hours to vote. Remember this happens on a day that is not a national holiday, people have jobs and also there’s a systematic bias even if you account for things like urban versus world divide also it’s demographic effects etc. It’s consequential.
If you go to other parts of the world there are forms of strategic rigging that seem to be strategic that are botched very badly. So one example, this is in Azerbaijan in 2013, the dictator there tried to basically show that he was a transparent person committed to democracy. He is not, but he was trying to show this so he developed an iPhone app that was going to release the results in real time. Now unfortunately for him, they mixed up and people who had downloaded the app before the election were surprised when they opened it the day before voting to see all of the results. The response was “well this was the old election results” but the numbers were different and so were the candidates it didn’t exactly pass the test of basic logic. The problem with this, and we’ll come back to this in the Q&A and also in Nick’s remarks is that this election was roundly praised by Westerners. And this is after observers detected fraud in roughly 50% of the precincts they went to and the results were populated before the vote. Yet there was praise from Congressman, there was praise from the council of Europe and we concluded this might have something to do with the resources that Azerbaijan has – particularly natural gas. Now, you also have other clever innovative techniques that are clever at the time but are easily detected and therefore stupid. And they end up translating stretigc rigging into non-strategic rigging. So in Ukraine for example, there was an election where the opposition strongholds and voters did their thing, they cast their ballot, and low and behold when they went to check the ballot boxes – all of the ballots were blank. It was because the ruling regime had given disappearing ink pens to all of the places where there was heavy concentrations of heavy opposition voters. So ten minutes after they voted their tick mark was erased. Now again, think about this from an election observer point of view. When they’re counting blank ballots there’s nothing they can do, they can condemn it but can’t say how it should have been. It’s walking a line between illegitimate and illegal. This picture is another strategic form of rigging that was very effective in Madagascar in 2006. So I’m here with the former President of Madagascar (inaudible) who was facing a challenger who could potentially pose a risk to his re-election prospects and Madagascan election law requires that you pose your registration papers to be a candidate in person.
So first off, he forced his rival into exile and then as the election approached and he tried to return the rival candidate came back on an airplane and as soon as he entered Madagascan airspace the President picked up the phone and closed all the airports on the island. The plane was diverted, this happened five different times. And then eventually the deadline passed and the court disqualified the candidate’s registration papers because they were not deposed in person as the law required and all of the observers gave this election the thumbs up. Now it makes sense that they did that from a legal point of view, because the court did its job. The rival candidate did not abide by the law. At the same time, you can hardly imagine any Western election being praised if one of the two candidates is disqualified on such an illegitimate and clearly blatant attempt to try and disqualify a main rival.
In Russia, which I’m sure we’ll talk more about in the Q&A, but one of the most ingenious election rigging attempts that was successful that we’ve encountered was in a Mayoral election in St. Petersburg. One of the main candidates was Oleg Serviev. Now the ruling regime at the time had said “we don’t want any partisan affiliation written on the ballots, we want this to be a non-partisan election.” They exploited that by saying you know what we can find a guy named Oleg Serviev to run, so they found a bus driver and a pensioner who had the same name as the candidate – all three of them were listed on the ballot. The voters did not know which was the candidate and so split their voted three ways and low and behold Oleg Serviev did not win. Again the problem here though is that everybody who voted knew what they were up to and they could see it and sometimes you have ingenious methods that still are not as strategic as you’d hope.
The last thing I’ll talk about before I hand things back over to Nick is digital frontiers. In the 20th Century, to rig an election you had to be somewhere in the country – you had to be at the precinct. That’s no longer true. And this is a situation where I think the world is increasingly going to have to grapple with both in terms of hacking which is obviously something that is very important for campaign security but also in terms of misinformation and information flows, manipulated by foreign actors. So, in the United States, one of the vulnerabilities that doesn’t get talked about enough is the voting machines themselves. There are fifteen states which still have electronic voting machines that have no paper trail associated with them that are deployed in at least one precinct so varying states have varying rules. But this means that if somebody were to have into this machine, there would be no paper record of whether the vote was actually recorded or not. And these machines are really vulnerable. So there are researchers from the University of Michigan who tried to get the governments attention that these were vulnerable, they didn’t listen so the researchers hacked into the voting machines and made it so that every time a ballot was cast it played the fight song from the University of Michigan. They also turned some of the machines into the Pacman game. This did catch peoples’ attention but the reforms had been very slow and voter registration databases which are highly digitised as well are open to tampering and you can imagine what type of havoc would be reeked if the Russian government or any government was able to hack into a voting registration system and wither disqualify every third voter in the database and eliminate their name the day before the election or systematically say disqualify everybody who’s surname is Gonzalez. It would undercut the legitimacy of the election completely and could be done remotely and this is something that I fear is going to be part of our future if we’re not aware of these risks and take stops to them.
We also talk in the book, it got some publicity early on as it was on the cover of The Spectator because it was published at the same time as the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke here and one of the chapters is about digital frontiers and this sort of micro-targeting and psychological manipulation. But one of the points that we make is that Cambridge Analytica’s well known story is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of firms out there who are working on elections in the rest of the world in places you don’t hear about on a daily basis that are working to manipulate information flows, spread genuinely false reports and manipulate elections in ways that we are not again equipped to deal with. That is something I think will be part of the concern going forward. Cambridge Analytica itself may not be the thing to focus on, it gets a lot of the publicity but the question is how much of this will become the world of election rigging and election manipulation going forward in shadowy financial deals and very shadowy regimes that are taking advantage of Western services to manipulate elections and hopefully generate victory. And with that I’ll turn over to Nick for some concluding remarks.
Okay, we’ll stop soon I promise! One quick story that’s really interesting is that many of these forms of manipulation and rigging are spread. So you’re writing a paragraph about how vulnerable United States machines may be to rigging when you get an email from someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo telling you that the government has just decided to introduce electronic voting in the next election. So all of these strategies are actually being spread and being copied at a rate that’s actually quite difficult to keep up with. One of the things that happened very soon after the book was published was that we started to get emails from all over the world from people who were offering us new strategies. We keep needing to get back to that person in the Maldives. It’s a little bit depressing.
One of the breaking news stories that we’ve really identified with over the last year is actually what I’d like to call post-election rigging, which is that there’s actually a strategy that’s now being identified and I think you can see in Kenya and Zambia and Zimbabwe in places like Venezuela. The government knows that international attention can be reduced after the election and they know also that many of the key international operatives and observers leave relatively quickly after the election – not everyone, the long-term observers stay but a lot of the shorter term ones. And so they actually do things after the election that they would never do during the campaign. These were things like: raiding opposition party offices to take materials that could be used in an election petition; detaining opposition party leaders and activists and clamping down on the media. These things do, as they effectively undermine the capacity of the opposition to reveal and document the abuses that were going during the campaign, thus kind of sealing the circle of strategic rigging, protecting your interests, preventing the election from being undermined in the court of international public opinion. This was done in a similar way in Zimbabwe, after the election there was a clampdown on the opposition party that would have never been done during the campaign itself. And it’s significant because most observer groups are still framing their reports around what happens up to and including election day with a much lower focus on what happens after election day. But the inability of opposition parties to effectively mobilise petitions is quite significant. So far we only have three petitions in the history of global elections that have overturned a presidential election. Only one, the one in Kenya last year, in the last decade. So effectively the courts and the opposition do not really represent an opportunity to challenge elections within the legal framework.
What does all this mean? Did we write this book just to depress you? We did a talk once and someone came up to us afterwards and said it was the most depressing talk they’d heard that year and they’d had three talks on Brexit. We didn’t write this book to depress you and we hope it’s not a depressing book. We wrote it for two reasons: one was because I think we got angry, we got angry at going to so many elections where things were clearly done in a way that was clever and sneaky and manipulative but the leaders got away with it. Not only got away with it in terms of winning power but also in terms of looking like respectable international leaders who were genuinely democratic. The second though was to actually start a conversation about how is it that we fight back. Now we don’t have an awful lot of time here so I’ll just give you a couple of suggestions about the things that might be done to deal with this situation.
The first thing we have to say is not a fun thing, it’s got to get worse before it gets better. We have a number of students working under our supervision who are actually working on authoritarian promotion strategies. Now when I was starting off working on Africa and democratisation everyone was working on democracy promotion. We had the end of history, with Fukuyama, we had the consensus on democracy promotion, the US, the UK and others put unprecedented budgets behind promoting democracy abroad. We kind of assumed we had international consensus and that we were going to get somewhere in ten years. And then of course that agenda stalled, partly because of 9/11 and the change in US foreign policy, partly because we got early successes in some countries but then stuck in battles in others. But we now see a significant trend towards a very different model of foreign policy engagement which is autocracy promotion – particularly in the Russian case, less so in the Chinese case, but in both cases in all of the countries in which we worked you hear stories from opposition and government operatives about the support given to the government. One of these things you can really track is internet censorship legislation. There are pieces of legislation that have been copied from models from China and Russia that have now been introduced in over 20 countries around the world in modified form so you can actually see processes of authoritarian learning, sharing information, but significantly that are often also funded by major authoritarian states.
Of course, as Brian has said, this is not something that is happening out there. We cannot be blind to the fact that this also has a connection to what’s happening here. On the one hand, the United Kingdom has move away from some of the language of democracy promotion in terms of its priorities partly because of Brexit and the focus on sorting out Brexit and the need to deal with internal problems. A much bigger problem if you’re talking about the promotion of global democracy is of course President Donald Trump. There’s a number of elections in the book which we talk about that our observers actually did a great job and called out, where the president was subsequently called by Donald Trump to be congratulated on his victory.
Now one of the things that we don’t talk about enough is that international election observers are not in a strong position. People often think they are but they actually are profoundly weak if you look at their institutional position. To start, international election observers are not allowed to intervene in an election so if you see someone adding votes for the president, you can’t stop them. You can write it down in your notebook, pass it to your team and it can go in the report but you are not allowed to intervene. If you do, that’s an offense and you could be removed from the country. So it’s a very reactive model. Not a proactive model. And not only is it a reactive model, but it’s a reactive model where the people who generate the report generally leave the country very quickly. So what they’re doing is they’re leaving the report with the international community representatives in the country and what that means is that the report success or failure really depends on the ambassadors in the country, domestic civil society and international world leaders in terms of whether they’re going to keep the pressure on for those recommendations to be enforced. Where that happens the observer’s recommendations can be very important. Where it doesn’t, you find successive election reports that say the same things and make the same recommendations but have never actually been enforced. The danger of having a president like Trump who congratulates leaders after elections is that completely undermines the pressure on leaders to respond to the recommendations in observer reports.
So that, sadly, is good news for the world’s dictators and it’s likely to continue for the next 3-4 years in some fear significantly longer than that. So how do we fix the system? One of the things we’ve called for in the book is a much bigger global conversation on what we’re actually doing when we do international elections monitoring. One of the things the election observers still do is distribute a small number of people into teams of two and send them out sometimes randomly, sometimes purposefully during elections. So you have a team of 130 people, that might be 60 when you have the top team and then you divide people into teams, so you’ve got 60 polling stations monitored. And we have to ask a serious question as to whether this is the best way to monitor elections. Why? Because that’s 60 polling stations that’s going to be a sample in most countries between 20,000 and 40,000.
Two, we know that effective authoritarian regimes understand how to make elections look good on the day. So election abuse on the day is unlikely to be the way the election is effectively manipulative. But also, three, we have sustained academic research that proves if you put an election pbserver in a polling station the number of abuses in that station falls considerably. That is offset by an increase in the number of abuses recorded in polling stations in surrounding constituencies. In other words, we have a lot of effort in the way we monitor elections at present is effectively displacing rigging rather than removing rigging. And this is very significant, most of the really good international teams in the European Union teams tend to be better than most. The Carter Centre teams tend to be better than most, but most of the really big teams will have somebody in the team who can crunch numbers. But almost none have an IT specialist that can tell you whether a centre has been hacked, almost none have a specialist who actually understands voting technology and can tell you whether voting technology is being manipulated. And so what we actually have is authoritarian leaders who are scaling up and modernising their strategy and an international elections observation process which is really failing to keep pace. So what we need to do is actually start to think about how will we revolutionise international election observation.
There are two things that we therefore need to do. One, is take the lessons of books like how to rig an election and actually work backwards. If you were actually going to detect some of this manipulation what would be the sorts of strategy and data we would use to rig an election. But also, two, we also need to pause to recognise the limitations of international observation. And I think one of the things that’s probably a reasonable criticism is that international observation groups have not spent enough effort over the last twenty years and actually transferring their skills to domestic groups so that they are no longer needed. The long term goal should be that we don’t need observation because countries are doing it for themselves.
This is essential for two reasons, one because it’s sustainable but also two nobody’s voice has greater legitimacy in that country than the people. And as you will all know there have been a number of cases where international observers have been in trouble for essentially being critiques for presenting neo-colonial views. That critique is always going to be there for the authoritarian unless the views are coming from domestic sources in the region itself. So two of the things we really pushed for in the book is a much greater emphasis on observers sharing their experience rather than simply observing but also transforming the way they do their job so it’s fit for the kind of election rigging we see today.
Thank you very much!
First off, could you give us your take on Imran Khan’s impact in Pakistan? What can we expect from Moti in India? And what’s going to happen in Brazil?
I’m interested in comparison, you mentioned that in post-communist states there was great violence than in certain places. I wonder what structure also plays a role, for example oil rich states will determine the way the dictators behave because vulnerability can also be caused by the structure, meaning the country might be small or there might be a lot of energy resources of less importance. These kind of things when you compare the structure and agency. And the second question what is in the international observation missions, what can be improved or corrected besides the things which you just mentioned? Every time when we have tremendously rigged elections in Azerbaijan, the announcement would be delayed for two hours – it’s usually the compromise between the politicians which are either bribed which are part of the OAC emission or professional technical people who come up with very objective assessments. So how can you see that problem resolved? And as a result there’s a magic sentence there that will impact the outcome of the elections
On the structure point I think you’re right, I think it’s also about state capacity. If you inherited a post-communist state you’ve inherited all the apparatus and the capacity which is significantly higher than in sub-Saharan Africa. And I think leaders are looking at the resources available to them and making strategic decisions about which one to use. So one of the reasons why I think we see high levels of targeted violence against people in Human Rights positions is that in some of those cases is because the state has an authoritarian reflex that is embedded in 30-40 years of history. Some of the countries in which we’re operating simply can’t actually have that level of violence, they can be sparatically violent but they don’t have the capacity to contain it. So we’ve seen really interesting variations, for example sub-Saharan African elections are much more likely to be rigged through vote buying. 67% of elections in Africa feature significant vote buying. Something like 30% you see systematic violence. If you go to post-communist Europe, it’s almost exactly the opposite. So you see leaders supplementing different kinds of strategies depending on the resources they have available. And this makes sense. Vote buying is a strategy that works where people are very poor. The richer people are, the more expensive it is to buy their votes. You get priced out. If you look at the literature on the history of the UK or the history of the US vote buying is related to finance and promoted by a new middle class and a new parliament. Also deeply related to increased standards of living and so what I’d expect to see in Africa for example is as standards of living rise people will have to swap strategies and may start using the state more as a form of violence. In terms of observers, they are not always fantastically resourced and they don’t always have back up. This binds their hands in what they can do. They are also worried about political stability. It’s easy for academics to say “you should have called that election unfree and unfair” if you’re the people on the ground who are going to make that statement and who worry it could cause public riots and that those riots could lead people to get shot. You then have an important trade-off between stability and democracy. And we would be pushing people ot be much more robust in defence of democracy but it’s not unreasonable to be concerned about stability in that.
What could be done? One of the biggest problems we have right now is that we don’t just have observers we have tonnes. In the average election now you have 4 or 5 observation groups, 2 or 3 will be regional, 1 or 2 will be international. The problem is, we’ve seen the rise of zombie observers which are groups set up by authoritarian states who are set up to observe elections and give them the clean bill of health. And what happens is that if everybody gives their election observation report on the same day, the EU might say it was a bad election, the commonwealth will probably say it was an okay but not so great election, the African Union will say it was pretty good, the Southern African Development Community will say it was fairly great and someone else will say it was fantastic, right? And what the media don’t do is say only two of these organisations are really tough standards lets go with them. The media will say, the international community is split on perspective on Zimbabwean election, or Kenyan, or Belarus or Azerbaijan election. One of the problems is that as the landscape of international election observation gets more and more complicated we see more and more groups sponsored by authoritarian states, the percentage of those observers that are really doing a good job and trying to hold up the right standards is dwindling. So I think we need to fight this battle on two fronts, one we need to empower EU and US observers to do a better job and find a way to strengthen their hand versus some of the others observers. A split picture makes it really hard for the media to respond in a positive way and as soon as you lose the narrative, international attention moves on.
DR BRIAN KLASS:
Your point about how dictators rig elections based on oil resources etc. one thing we also highlight is this irony that the least geo strategically important countries actually often are held to higher standards in various times because the international community has the least to lose there. They say this was a bad election and they cut off foreign aid, that doesn’t matter much in too many places for example sub-Saharan Africa it really matters in Azerbaijan or Thailand – somewhere with significant economic links. You end up having regimes that play that to this extent, they know that they can get away with pushing the envelope. Nick and I have interviewed a lot of Heads of State and they’ve told us in various ways off the record that if they get the thumbs up in the last election and they rigged it, they’re going to rig it the next time because why would you change something that gives you legitimacy and that you’re certain will win? That creates this curse of low expectations where if you’re not harsh, you incentives leaders to rig elections. That’s a problem I think happens in a lot of places around the world.
Your question I’ll try to deal with briefly. The politics of Pakistan, India and Brazil are not something to be done in brief but I will say – with places in Latin America like Brazil, we have seen early examples of hacking, and they’re early adopters of digital information. The chapter on that starts in Latin America where there are these guns for hire that went around way before anyone had heard of Cambridge Analytica and they were very effective. Those states involve a lot of digital space technologies. In somewhere like Pakistan, one point I’m not an expert on the most recent election but what I think comes out of it is also the problematic effect of what happens when past elections are quality for future elections. Even if an election in Russia were to be perfect tomorrow, most people wouldn’t think it were. Their faith in the democratic process would be eroded. One of the problems is even if you have progress, the legacy of rigged elections is something that lingers for decades where public faith undermines democratic performs. If someone tries to tinker with the system, the opposition might cry foul if someone tinkers the other way the regime will say no this is not okay. So you have these losses of confidence in places like Pakistan where even if reforms were to happen it would take quite a long time for them to be accepted.
You mentioned authoritarian regimes getting better, how do they communicate? Is there an authoritarian version of Davos or? Or consultants roaming the world teaching people to do these things? Of course they can just read your book now
(Inaudible) … my question on the point which I thought really is a potential one, on the split picture between the robust observers and those who aren’t. How realistic or have there been any cases of progress by organisations like the Carter Centre and the EU in getting it across in particular say the commonwealth might be a half-way house leading onto authoritarian groups of course with the commonwealth you have got the north south issues but maybe there’s an opportunity there. Many of the old commonwealth countries now have a significant minority from the new commonwealth.
There is some progress, so you know the South African Development Community monitors recently adopted a new protocol which recently accepted international best practice like having long-term observers for example. And an ability to observe electoral registration as well as election day which is critical because a lot of the rigging will be done through registration rather than on the day. There is progress there. The commonwealth just adopted a new protocol on elections and evaluations, who I think was written by Tim Sheehoo who is a great elections expert. It’s a really good document so there’s progress there again. In both those cases we’re not necessarily implementing, we have good protocols and principles but you then have to do two things. You have to make sure the people who lead the mission really speak up for it and make it robust and I think those are two things that are difficult to do. Funding is difficult. Getting international funding for international observation is actually quite hard and a lot of places like the Carter Centre don’t have the ability to do so. In many cases the people leading these missions are people who are formally presidents of neighbouring countries who have not presided over good quality elections themselves. They may decide this is the time to talk to people about promoting democracy but in many of the elections I’ve seen they get a leader from a neighbouring country who tells you that the election was good enough, who’s elections they’ve been running in their own country for twenty years are also pretty poor quality. So I think that’s always going to be a challenge. An administration between principles that look good on paper but actual implementation and making a tough decision is something that people pull their punches at.
On a very good question about authoritarian learning, it happens in multiple different formats so I will go all the way back to the 1970s, I had a great conversation with former president of Zambia, Kenneth Callander, about how he set up a one party state and he said when he decided to do it he got on the plane to Tanzania to ask Julius Nyerere because he’d done it first and he’d done it well so he decided this was the strategy. It doesn’t always happen quite in that way, but I think you could see there that there are two or three different regional organisations in the world where the balance is more on the authoritarian side than on the democratic side. If you talk to the aids of the presidents, they will tell you that there’s a lot of conversations at those meetings about how you solve mutual problems like a free press. But then of course you don’t even need to do that, as Brian was saying 20 years ago you would’ve needed to get on the plane or go to the international conference nowadays you can look online at the Amnesty International report of what was done in a country and copy what the government did if you want to generate a similar result. You can copy most of the legislation that we’re talking about that’s been passed, because the other thing we haven’t talked about is that almost all the countries we’ve talked about today have introduced anti NGO legislation, so civil society curbing legislation. It’s basically designed to kill Human Rights organisations who are90% funded outside the country or that contains decisions that allows NGOs to effectively be targeted by terrorist legislation that allows them to be labelled as suspect and therefore be audited by the government in a way that basically puts them out of business.
But those kind of pieces of legislation have circulated around the world and there’s multiple versions available and what you see is people kind of changing certain clauses but not keeping others. Of course we should say on that side that we are not innocent, most of that legislation started after 9/11 and some of it is sponsored by the US government. Again it’s the ability of authoritarian leaders around the world to manipulate opportunities in a way the protects themselves. So the US wants anti-terror legislation, you introduce it, but you manipulate it in a way that allows you to target your domestic opponents at the same time. The international community therefore finds it hard to criticise its legislation because they were supportive in the first place and some of the consequences were very good and you get what you want out of the system.
To add one thing, with the European Union and various types of observers. One of the problems with most of the observers is they’re tied to governments and the Carter Centre is one of the few exceptions of international observation. But they do have that advantage for them which is they are not tied to a government so they can make an independent assessment. Now the EU often does a very good job but there are cases where I have been told by observers that they are instructed to effectively look the other way unless there’s violence. The directive is not so clear in some ways, but that’s the sense some of the observation leaders are getting because the stakes of legitimising the election are so high for member states. So that’s a problem, the independence question that needs to be resolved going forward.
The other one is the cost effectiveness and funding – I won’t talk about which election this is but there’s an election that’s upcoming that has 30 million people and one of the major problems is people accepting results if there’s not international observation because then they can say it was rigged. And if there is international observation and it clearly says there wasn’t it’s much harder for them to not burn a serious amount of political capital by rejecting results. Now sometimes the cost of these missions is in international politics terms peanuts. We’re talking 500-600 thousand dollars that’s the gap. But if you think about clean-up costs if there’s a post-election crisis that leads to a civil war or a famine, those are massive. So in some ways it’s about forward planning and strategic allocation of resources that can stave off political crises through observation that reduces aid burden that a lot of countries end up spending to clean up the mess after the election becomes a crisis. In that way, observers can be very powerful in restricting the political calculations of bad faith actors in developing countries who if they lose will reject an election result no matter what but will actually not be able to mobilise a mob if everybody agrees that the election was actually done cleanly.
You’ve given good reasons in the short term prior (inaudible) as well as very good reasons long term to develop domestic capacity within civil side and the opposition etc. How would you reconcile those two because they seem slightly conflicting domestic versus international and would you have any examples of how that’s been done successfully in terms of developing civil society capacity within a country?
That’s a good question. I mean one the dangers of building up any sort of institution is that it doesn’t take much to break it down. Donors have moved away from institution building in the last ten years precisely because they feel they haven’t got long to get sustainable benefits – it wasn’t just an election observation; this is development more generally. SO it is a major challenge. One of the things you’ll find is that civil society can be intimidated, it’s true to say that in a lot of countries around the world we have seen significant strengthening of domestic observation over the last ten-fifteen years and I think one of the things that’s really interesting is the people who pull their punches on elections are not the domestic observers they’re the regional observers. So we did a study of fifteen elections across four years and in every single election the domestic observation group was more critical than the international observation group. Now that’s not always the case, but in these fifteen elections consistently. So the problem is not so much the domestic observers it’s those regional observers that are sponsored by incumbent and give them a glowing perspective. I’m more confident about strengthening domestic strategies and empowering those groups and them calling out the election than I am in some ways about doing that more sustainably. There’s more money there, you would have something more positive. But that doesn’t seem to be the case – we seem to be stronger at the international and the lower level. The other thing maybe just on Modi because you asked about Modi didn’t you, I think one of the things leaders don’t think of for long term points is their short term strategies. I spent a lot of my time working on Kenya and you can very clearly see that the things that retained power in the early 1990s led to the Kenya crisis of 2007 when 1000 people died. It’s not to say he pulled the trigger, but that election crisis would never have happened without the kind of tension that he created over a decade. It was a short term calculation, he wanted to win an election and he wasn’t sure he could win and so he played a form of divisive politics in order to do so. Everything I’ve seen in India under Modi has made me worry that he’s doing exactly the same thing and other words it might not look so bad under Modi but the moment that he goes and we have a power vacuum sorts of politics intentions that have been exacerbated, the potential for long-term civil unrest in a country that hasn’t had it on a national scale is becoming quite worrying. I think that’s one of the things that’s really interesting and that we try to talk about in the book. You create the impression amongst people that elections cannot be used to win power which encourages people to do things to take up arms, encourages non state activity outside of the democratic game activity. If you do that systematically over a long period, you give the opposition no reason to continue to play by the rules of the game.
One thing I think people who are not in the election observation world might miss is that some of these things that election observers are actually doing on a day to day are not difficult. They’re things like taking a picture of the tally on the blackboard in the local precinct, saying was the ballot box sealed, was there a soldier intimidating voters, were people able to vote without looking over their shoulder. These things are not difficult to train people to do and one of the things that can really help people is if domestic observers can actually have somebody in every precinct that was able to, for example, take a photograph of the count as the ballot box is unsealed it makes it really hard for them to change the count at a district level which is something that happens quite a lot. One of the things I’m hoping domestic observers can do is that they have citizens who are in every village in all the countries being observed and it’s a heck of a lot less expensive than flying in a team of 100 Europeans than it is to simply empower a bunch of domestic observers with best practises and the reporting to make sure it’s all collated properly.
I’ll conclude by saying that one of the things that we wanted to transmit is how important it is to people who are in positions of power in the West to encourage people to take this more seriously because all of the work, all of the form we talk about is meaningless fundamentally if there is not political will to back it up and international pressure to routinely rig elections and get away with it. That’s why although we write How to Rig an Election the real hope is that people learn how to stop it.
Thank you very much for being a wonderful audience!