The Origins of Electoral Fraud

While the political equality offered by universal, equal, direct suffrage was, and continues to be, regarded as potentially transformative, its impact is conditional and can be diminished if introduced into settings marked by stark socioeconomic inequalities and steep social hierarchies. Electoral fraud and manipulation are the result when democracy bumps up against economic inequality…

That is from new research by Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. His focus is 19th century Germany, but those are the broader implications. The mechanism he identifies may also have analogues in other countries:

…landed elites seek to preserve their electoral dominance in the countryside but no longer do so inside a direct patron-client relationship. Instead, they exert influence indirectly via the capture of rural local public officials such as mayors, county commissioners, police officials, and election officials, who in turn are the actors that interfere with free and fair elections. In its most acute form, capture occurs as socioeconomic interests infiltrate the state by using their own personnel to staff the state

Indeed, elections can even be dangerous in this way:

…Elections in nondemocratic regimes can potentially bolster entrenched interests, buying greater legitimacy for imperfect regimes, thereby extending their life span. Thus, we need not only focus on the “adoption” or short-term “choice” of democratic procedures as most empirical work continues to do but also to examine the long-term process of democratization as it confronts, and is shaped by, a variety of “push-back” tactics such as election manipulation that are deployed with the goal of making elections endogenous to preexisting social power.

The paper is here (ungated).

An estimated Gini coefficient for Iran is here, and it is not small.

3 Responses to The Origins of Electoral Fraud

  1. Joel June 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Iran’s Gini is, of course, roughly equivalent to our own. Which is interesting, given the thesis.

  2. Daniel Ziblatt June 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    Nice connection from John Sides showing us the long shadow of history: from the nineteenth century to today, elections and authoritarianism can be combined in a variety of subtle ways that do not always imply democratization (as many political scientists continue to fantasize about) making clear that when elites (landed or clerical, etc.) in a nondemocratic settings have motives to cheat (a serious electoral challenge) and the institutional means to cheat (control over polling stations, Interior Ministry, etc.), election fraud results, ironically sometimes bolstering authoritarianism.

    Two further interesting questions: First, will outrage and protest over accusations of election fraud trigger collective action that is dangerous for the regime in a fashion that Joshua Tucker (2007) has explored in other settings. This is a delicate balancing act for the regime. A second issue: do we know where in Iran election fraud was most rampant (if it occurred)? Some interesting provincial level election results are posted at: Provincial level inequality data in Iran would be fascinating..

  3. Joshua Tucker June 15, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    Daniel: Thanks for the shout out to my work. I’ve got a piece over on The New Republic today that highlights a number of reasons why I think actions taken by the Iranian authorities will make it _more difficult_ for accusations of electoral fraud to have a similar effect in Iran. That being said, the longer protests continue without serious repercussions from the security services – and I don’t really know whether we’ve hit that point yet – the more I start to wonder. Furthermore, one of the things I noted in the TNR piece was that there didn’t seem to be hard evidence _yet_ of electoral fraud that the opposition could use as a rallying point. However, if provincial level results are starting to come out that are consistent with massive fraud, that too could begin to change the situation a bit.