Last week, stories emerged about irregularities in elections in Lithuania and Ukraine that took place over the weekend. In the case of Ukraine, ahead of the election Yanukovyc’s government had been blamed of engaging in unfair campaign advertising practices, persecution of opposition leaders, and the fashioning of fake opposition parties; and following the election, international observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted a series of problems with the conduct the election. In the case of Lithuania, the process of coalition formation following the two rounds of parliamentary election got stuck following allegations of vote buying and other forms of electoral misconduct involving the Labor Party. These two elections are only an example of the type of concerns surrounding a large portion of elections taking place periodically around the world.
Among possible manipulations of the electoral process, the ones posing the stronger threats to electoral integrity are direct attempts at influencing the election outcome by preventing groups of citizens from voting, coercing voters to support a particular candidate (through vote buying or threats), or destroying, inflating, or purposely miscounting votes. These practices — which distort voters’ intents and often give an unfair advantage to one candidate or party — are usually grouped under the label of “electoral fraud;” although the term is often broadened to encompass other forms of manipulation of the electoral process, such as unlawful redirection of government resources to electoral ends.
With the increased public and media scrutiny of elections in both established democracies and countries that are still undergoing democratic transitions, comes the need to develop clear standards and procedures for evaluating the integrity of electoral processes. The development of these procedures will contribute, among other things, to the deterrence of fraud and to the improvement of election administration procedures and voting systems. Political scientists have not been unresponsive to these needs. On the contrary, some scholars have already began the process of developing “election forensic” techniques that, when applied to elections data, are capable of detecting precincts or specific geographic areas where manipulation might have occurred.
While the electoral fraud debate often centers around the easiness of manipulating election results under alternative voting systems and technologies, the real key to preventing fraud might not lie on the development of entirely fraud-proof voting systems — an ideal that is not only hard to achieve, but that might entail trade offs with other desirable properties of voting systems, such as the convenience of voting using the system — but on ensuring with a high level of confidence that that manipulations of election returns, and particularly outcome-altering manipulations, will be detected. The reason lies in the incentives faced by violators; much in the same way as happens with other types of fraud, such as financial and research fraud, election fraud is more likely to take place when the misdeed is expected to go undetected.
Thus, the development of election forensics techniques capable of detecting election irregularities is not only important in order to produce evidence that can be used to challenge unfair election outcomes or expose illegitimate governments, but also for deterring the occurrence of fraud in the first place. Results produced by election forensics analyses may also help prevent unjustified post-electoral challenges of election outcomes in those cases in which an opposition party contests official results in the absence of systematic evidence of electoral fraud. If the democratic ideal of political equality is to prevail, it is important to provide incentives for all political actors to abide by voter choices.
Ines Levin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia. In an effort to put together some of the cutting-edge research in this emerging area of scholarship, Political Analysis recently published a virtual issue on “Election Fraud and Electoral Integrity”.
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