The List: How to Steal an Election Without Breaking a Sweat

The List: How to Steal an Election Without Breaking a Sweat

From Abuja to Islamabad, autocratic regimes have become adept at manipulating “free and fair elections” to stay in power. Here’s how they do it—and how to stop them.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Control the process

How it’s done: It’s much easier to steal an election when there are fewer checks on executive power and no legal framework for resolving disputes. When the laws are vague, election commissions are often powerless to confront a powerful central leader. “When you have a partial constitution that doesn’t lay out the details of election law properly, that’s a problem,” says Chris Hennemeyer, director of African programs at the election-monitoring group IFES, adding, “It’s a tried-and-true technique to stack the electoral commission with your cronies.”

Real-world example: Kenya’s constitution invests an enormous amount of power in the executive branch. This allowed President Mwai Kibaki to create a vast system of patronage throughout the government based largely on tribal ties. The head of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, Samuel Kivuitu, has recently admitted that he was pressured by the president’s office to announce results before he could verify their authenticity.

How to stop it: An independent judicial branch that is capable of arbitrating electoral disputes without partisan pressure is a must. It also helps if polls are managed by independent election commissions rather than interior ministries.


Manipulate the media

How it’s done: In countries with little or no independent media outlets, opportunities are rife for leaders to use state-controlled media to broadcast propaganda or discredit the opposition. Crackdowns on independent media are also common in the run-up to elections.

Real-world example: In the months leading up to the recent presidential election in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government shut down Imedi TV, an opposition-friendly television station founded by one of the president’s rivals and managed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Footage of Saakashvili’s campaign appearances dominated news programs on state television. The incumbent went on to win handily in an election deemed fair by international observers.

How to stop it: The proliferation of Internet news sources and text messaging can make it harder to control the flow of information, a fact exploited by Ukrainian bloggers during that country’s “Orange Revolution.” However, as bloggers critical of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak learned this year, they are not immune to government crackdowns or jail time. There are low-tech solutions as well. Since World War II, the U.S. government’s Voice of America service has provided relatively unbiased information to citizens without access to free media.


Keep out the observers

How it’s done: In close elections, a popular technique is to identify which polling stations are likely to be swing votes and replace trained election officials with government loyalists at the last minute. If the official staff can be kept quiet for long enough, the deception won’t be discovered by the opposition until it’s too late. Another common technique is to threaten, blackmail, or discredit domestic election observers, or simply deny them access to polling stations, to give government loyalists space to do their work.

Real-world example: During the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, judges at individual polling stations made seemingly arbitrary decisions about whether to allow outside monitoring. The result? Some stations were monitored and some were not. Monitors were beaten by police in one southern city, and eight were arrested and released elsewhere. Those who were granted access recorded a litany of violations.

How to stop it: Observers from international organizations are harder to remove and less susceptible to threats from local law enforcement personnel. However, it is often impossible to bring in sufficient numbers of foreign staff to monitor every polling place, and even foreign observers often have trouble getting the access they need.


Misreport results

How it’s done: It’s not a slam dunk to cheat on the count at polling stations, since they are often monitored by international observers or civil-society groups. Unfortunately, official results are generally tabulated by officials at centralized locations away from public scrutiny, making deliberate miscounting all too easy. Another popular technique is to tabulate results from “ghost” voting stations, says Pat Merloe, director of electoral programs at the National Democratic Institute. This type of fraud can be risky. The public usually notices when officially reported results vastly differ from polling conducted prior to elections.

Real-world example: Nadia Diuk, senior director for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), relays a tale from Azerbaijan’s 2000 elections: “The light went out in the room where the counting was to take place, and the flashlights of the observers just caught sight of a bundle of ballots sailing through the air to land on the counting table.”

How to stop it: In one innovative scheme, Kosovar democracy activists monitored polling places during assembly elections last November and used mobile phones to text unofficial results to a central server, creating a tally that could be compared to officially released results. As it turned out, the tally was within half a percent of the election commission’s own numbers.


Foster incompetence and chaos

How it’s done: “Arguably, Africa’s foremost election thieves have been the Nigerians, world famous for their 419 scams and oil-induced corruption,” says Dave Peterson, also at NED. The trick is to create so much chaos that nobody can say for sure who really won.

Real-world example: Nigeria’s 2007 national and state elections take the chaos prize. Ballots arrived late to polling stations, if at all, or were printed with missing or incorrect information. Polling places and procedures were changed at the last minute. With security lax, reports were rampant of militants harassing voters and youth gangs breaking into polling places and making off with ballot boxes. “One couldn’t say the government controlled the process as much as it simply sabotaged it,” Peterson says.

How to stop it: The best way to stop it, says Peterson, is once again to establish and fund a “genuinely independent electoral commission” that is responsible for ensuring that the process flows smoothly.




Resort to the crude stuff

How it’s done: “My old boss once said, ‘Only amateurs steal an election on election day,’” says Hennemeyer. Controlling the process itself is generally far more effective and difficult to prevent than blatantly stealing an election at the polling-station level. But if all else fails, some governments are still not above using such tried-and-true methods as intimidating voters and prospective candidates.

Real-world example: A favorite tactic in Egypt is to deploy riot police in strategic polling locations to keep out voters for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood—while state employees arrive in buses and are ushered in en masse. In 2005, a bloody showdown in the streets of Alexandria between government-backed thugs wielding machetes and Brotherhood supporters seeking to cast their votes became international news, embarrassing the regime.

How to stop it: Thankfully, this type of blatant election-stealing is less common than it used to be in many parts of the world. This is due less to governments’ becoming more honest than to increased vigilance by citizens’ groups and the media. Hennemeyer describes the changes he has seen in Africa: “While there were some horrible elections in Africa [in 2007], there were some pretty good ones too. It’s almost as if there’s a new generation of people who have woken up to the fact the Africans have been robbed of their political rights since independence.”

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