Archive | Electoral Fraud

Russia’s Growing Opposition

Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his third term as Russia’s president today. As numerous news organizations have reported, Russia’s nascent opposition movement also took to the streets to mark the event. We are fortunate to have the following guest post from University of Indiana political scientist Regina Smyth, who is spending the year in Moscow. All views expressed below are those of the author.

Yesterday in Moscow the opposition protests culminated in violence that obscured the broader process of civic organization that occurred over the past months. Tens of thousands of citizens turned out for the Million Man March, on the eve of Mr. Putin’s inauguration. The march ended at Bolotnaya Square where it combined with a protest meeting. Most marchers never made in to the Square. They packed the bridge and embankment across from the protest and stood on the march route. This division in protest events created confusion about the numbers of participants. Official counts included only those in a small area around Bolotnaya, severely underestimating the size of the crowd that marched.

The opposition, reported to be in disarray, put on a tremendous show of unity. The nationalists marched right in front of a group wearing neon balaclavas and holding a large poster exhorting the crowd to, “Start the Pussy Riot,” a nod to the punk rock poets that are being held on serious charges for staging a protest in the Church of Christ the Savior. The Muscovites cheered loudly for the delegation from St. Petersburg whose large banner read, “Piter is Against Putin.” The libertarians marched with the KPRF and every off color poster, costume and piece of art was applauded along the route. This crowd, filled with families, older people, and groups from around Russia, was not confrontational nor did it seem defeated.

The size of the protest caught the police by surprise. Dispersed along the route but not behind barriers, they looked uncomfortable as they were surrounded and separated by groups of marchers. As the crowed neared the square, a long line of special forces, the OMON, in riot gear rushed to get in front of it and prevent people from crossing the bridge toward the Kremlin. Their leaders exhorted them not to run as they struggled to stay together.

At the end of the event, opposition leaders refused to leave Bolotnaya and sat on the asphalt. While they had done the same thing on March 5 in Pushkin Square, this time thousands of participants joined them in an attempt to occupy the space. A few people pitched tents. In her open letter on Live Journal, Ksenia Sobchak writes that the opposition leaders planned the provocation before the march, and raised fears of the movement being radicalized. Descriptions of violence, accompanied by horrific film, eclipsed all other coverage of the event.

Yet, peaceful protests across the city today defy the conclusion of radicalized action, and the growth in civic action beyond the protests defies the reported sense of resignation among activists. A few thousand peaceful activists wearing white led the OMON in a chase around the squares of the central city and although many were arrested they were very orderly. These actions reflect the growing use of protest to contest a closed system. In the past weeks, Muscovites have taken to the streets to protect historical landmarks, agitate for the release of Pussy Riot activists, protest for the environment, fight building corruption, revise damaging educational policy changes, and support transparency within the police ranks.

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Why did the Russian Government Install Webcams in Polling Stations?

Continuing the discussion regarding the (perhaps) counter-intuitive decision of the Russian government to install webcams with freely available live-feeds in polling stations throughout the country in last Sunday’s presidential election, NYU Ph.D. candidate Andrew Little sends along the following comments:

It may seem puzzling that Russian government spent 300 million dollars installing webcams in every polling station for the presidential election this past week. As mentioned in a Monkey Cage post back before the election, I have a theoretical paper that seeks to explain why governments voluntarily invite international election monitors, which can easily be adapted to this question. In short, installing webcams can serve as a very visible mechanism to make certain types of fraud more visible/difficult. So, for a fixed election result, the government will seem more popular when there are monitors and webcams, while spending less effort to commit fraud.

The paper is here, below is a short summary of the logic of the formal model and how it applies to webcams.

Consider an election where everyone knows the incumbent leader will win. The incumbent still has an incentive to commit fraud if they want to seem as popular or strong as possible to some domestic audience. For Putin, this audience may be citizens more apt to protest if they think the election result shows his popularity is slipping. While Putin easily would have won a runoff round, dissident oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that “A second round would confirm that the change we all seek is on its way; that an evolutionary and not a revolutionary approach can be the way forward.” In Erik Herron’s article that he links to in his Monkey Cage post, he makes a similar claim that in the 2008 presidential election in Azerbaijan “the election of Aliyev for a second term was a fait accompli; the main question was whether or not he would be able to claim a mandate through high turnout.”

Committing fraud to seem more popular is not cheap: poll workers have to be bought off, voters have to be bused from one polling station to the next, etc. Further, a problem facing Putin and others in his situation is that the domestic audience they are trying to impress are aware that these activities are going on. They may over- or under-estimate how much fraud takes place, but for simplicity suppose they form a correct conjecture of how much cheating there is. If so, the incumbent regime spends lots of money and effort to cheat without convincing anyone that they are actually strong.

If it doesn’t work, why commit the fraud? In the model, this happens because how much fraud they commit is only partially observed. So, if they falsify fewer votes than their audience conjectures, they will seem weaker and more unpopular than they really are. Conversely, there is always a benefit to committing a bit more fraud than expected. Loosely speaking, for the equilibrium amount of fraud to be 15%, it must be the case that the marginal benefit of being seen as 1% more popular is equal to the marginal cost of going from falsifying 15% to 16% of the vote. This may not be true at 15%, but the model demonstrates some conditions under which there is some nonzero amount of fraud where the marginal benefit meets the marginal cost.

Now suppose there are lots of international monitors present and/or webcams in every polling station. This makes fraud more visible, and hence makes it more difficult to seem more popular by committing more fraud than expected. This leads to a lower equilibrium level of fraud—-and hence cost paid to commit the fraud—-but does not affect how popular and strong the leader ends up seeming. So, inviting monitoring, in the form of the OSCE or installing webcams, can unambiguously leave the leader better off.

As with any model, this likely does not tell the whole story of why webcams were used in Azerbaijan or Russia. As suggested by Josh, webcams may lead local officials to commit fraud in less embarrassing ways. In addition, having eyes on the polling station can help national party officials figure out which of the local party agents are particularly good at generating favorable results without cheating (or who is particularly good at cheating without getting caught!). Still, I think the effects described above at least render the decision to install webcams less surprising.

[Photo credit: Natalia Kolesnikova.]

Continue Reading

Webcams and Polling Stations: Evidence from Azerbaijan

[Photo by Erik Herron]

Couldn’t get enough of Super Tuesday? Well, imagine you could not only watch news reports roll in, but could also observe voters (and poll workers) around the country voting through live webcams in all polling stations. As I noted earlier this week, this was indeed the case in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, where the government installed webcams in almost all of the polling stations throughout the country, and according to the Moscow Times, more than 2.5 million people registered with the website that was set up to allow citizens to view these feeds.

In turns out that this was not the first time a government had installed webcams in polling stations during an election. Apparently Georgia was the first country to install webcams closed circuit cameras in polling stations, but Azerbaijan (according to the Azeri Central Election Commissioner) was the first in Europe to both install web cams and make the feed publicly available in 2008. University of Kansas professor Erik Herron was in Azerbaijan at the time, and has published an article in Electoral Studies on the use of webcams in this election. He was kind enough to provide the following guest post; Herron also blogs about post-Soviet electiosn at and is on Twitter @erikherron.

Webcams installed in over 90,000 polling stations all across Russia provided a glimpse of activities – some mundane and some illicit – that occurred over the weekend as voters cast ballots in the presidential election. Russia is not the first post-Soviet state to experiment with this form of monitoring, however. In 2005 and 2008, Georgia placed closed-circuit cameras in polling stations, but the video feed was not made public.

In October 2008, I attended the press conference of Azerbaijan’s Central Electoral Commission where the CEC director proudly announced that Azerbaijan would be the first country “in Europe” to broadcast live streaming video footage from polling stations online. Five-hundred polling stations (out of 5400 or so – numbers vary from election to election) were equipped with fixed cameras that showed a general view of polling station activities without audio. On election day, I visited a precinct in Baku streaming video and colleagues also checked video feeds to ensure that they were indeed live (in contrast to the allegedly fraudulent footage in Magadan on Sunday). Based on that experience and data from Azerbaijan’s CEC, I investigated the effects of monitoring by webcams and published the results in Electoral Studies (gated).

Although none of Azerbaijan’s elections have been assessed as meeting international standards by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, officials in 2008 were talking about transparency and fair play. In the previous election in 2005, many polling station officials were punished for alleged misdeeds. In the article, I suggested that polling station officials monitored in 2008 faced incentives to deliver the vote for the pro-regime outcome (as always), but also had to be mindful of the possibility that they would be punished for evidence of egregious fraud. These countervailing incentives would encourage officials to satisfy demands to produce pro-regime outcomes, but perhaps moderate the reported results.
Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Electoral Fraud in Russia: Report from the Russian Blogosphere

The following is a guest post from Scott Gehlbach, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

In a recent post on the Monkey Cage, Andrew Gelman writes that he was “not convinced” by a recent attempt to debunk evidence of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, though he asserts that he knows “nothing about Russian elections” and suggests that “others can feel free to clarify.” There is, in fact, quite a bit of information floating around the blogosphere on December’s Duma elections, though most of it is in Russian and not accessible to the typical reader of the Monkey Cage. Here is my attempt at translation.

Some necessary context: The statistical analysis of electoral fraud in Russian elections dates to the pioneering work of Alexander Sobyanin, a Russian physicist who examined voting and turnout in the 1993 constitutional referendum. There is superb academic work on the topic by Mikhail Myagkov, Peter Ordeshook, and Dimitri Shakin, who built on and extended Sobyanin’s insights in a number of important publications, culminating in The Forensics of Electoral Fraud (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Finally, the bloggers Alexander Kireev and Sergei Shpilkin have provided some of the best real-time analysis of the recent elections.

The basic idea in all of this work is that electoral fraud should be evident in election data sufficiently disaggregated. In fact, certain anomalies are visible in the Russian elections using region-level data alone. Exhibit A is Chechnya, where both turnout and vote for United Russia were in excess of 99%. But we can do better, thanks to the generosity – or foolishness – of the Russian Electoral Commission, which makes precinct-level data freely available for download.

In practice, most analysis has focused on three indicators: the distribution of vote shares across precincts, the distribution of turnout across precincts, and the relationship between vote shares and turnout. Starting from the top, here is the distribution of precinct-level vote shares for United Russia:

Continue Reading →

Continue Reading

Russia: Middle Class Rising

Continuing our series of commentaries on recent developments in Russia, we are pleased to welcome the following guest post from Thomas Remington of Emory University:

Press reports in both Russia and the US of the large-scale protests against election fraud in Moscow and other large cities are characterizing this movement as the political mobilization of the Russian “middle class.” The middle classs trope has figured prominently in Russian press and scholarly discussion over the last few years. The Kremlin’s master strategist, Vladislav Surkov, has repeatedly pushed United Russia to defend the interests of the middle class, in whom he sees a force for stability—Russia’s “silent heroes,” as he calls them, borrowing a phrase from Barack Obama. Social scientists have tried to fix the size and dynamics of the middle class. Some see it growing in social weight and self-awareness, while others have noted the stagnation of incomes in the middle while incomes at the top—Russia’s top 1%—have skyrocketed. Shortly before the December 4 Duma election, a Kremlin-affiliated think tank issued a report claiming that the middle class now comprised nearly half of the working population of big cities. The numbers were more faith-based than real, but the report made a valid point: that without proper political representation in an adequately competitive electoral arena, redistributive tensions between higher-income and lower-income strata were bound to increase. Presciently, the report predicted significant political dissatisfaction if the electoral process failed to accommodate the “middle class’s” interests.

Kremlin cardinal Surkov understands this point well. Earlier this year he attempted to breathe life into the crumbling Right Cause party by recruiting oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov to head it. But Prokhorov’s refusal to limit his electoral ambitions to the small share of the vote Surkov was willing to concede to him wrecked the project. A few days ago, after the fiasco of the Duma election—the poor official results for United Russia, the widespread and well-documented use of ballot-stuffing, manipulation of absentee voting certificates, and after-hours revisions of local vote tallies—Surkov again pointed out that Russia needs a political party for the “disgruntled urban communities” that believe in quaint ideas of political rights and fair elections. Surkov expressed himself with his customary cynicism, but his job now will be to build a legitimate liberal party—perhaps led by former finance minister Kudrin—that will not be totally compromised by its association with the Kremlin.

But are we seeing the rise of the middle class? We might do better to ask harder questions about who is protesting and why. As several posts to this blog have pointed out, there have been growing numbers of self-organized movements of civic activism in recent years in many cities, with the social media replacing traditional channels of leadership and mobilization. Many protests have focused on abuses by the authorities in traffic accidents. There have been successful one-shot protests against proposed laws and regulations that tap the energy of communities of citizens aroused through the social media. Big cities contain clusters of educated, internet-savvy, self-aware, and politically engaged citizens. As if testing the classic Verba-Schlozman-Brady model of political participation, they have the grievances to motivate their involvement in civic protest (“because they want to”), they have the ability to communicate (“because they can”), and they summon one another to turn out for rallies and collective acts of protest (“because someone asked them”).

There is a proto-middle class in Russia, but it is divided straight down the middle between those in the private sector and those in the budget sector. The recent election protests are not the revolt of the middle class, but a result of the gradual establishment of a real civil society with growing self-confidence and an awareness of its rights that is taking on board the opportunities for mobilization granted by the new communications technologies.

Continue Reading

Recent Developments in Russia: Two Competing Explanations that Might Both be Correct

I have an op-ed on Al Jazeera English in which I propose two different ways of thinking about recent events in Russia, both of which are based on theoretical arguments I have put forward in academic journals (see here and here) in recent years. One focuses on the ability of fraudulent elections to serve as a focal point for aggrieved citizens to coordinate in solving a collective action problem (ie., coming together to oppose the regime). The other suggests the possibility that the elections were an effort on the part of Russian citizens to communicate information to Putin, namely that he needs to shape up (improve on a “valence” dimension, in the political science terminology) in order to be re-elected. The two obviously have different implications for how we might interpret last week’s developments in Russia, although personally I do think both may be happening simultaneously.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the op-ed; the rest of it can be found here:


Two weeks ago, most Russia observers were approaching the current December 3, 2011 Russian parliamentary elections with a collective yawn: United Russia (the ruling party, now headed by current Russian president Dmitry Medvedev) would win; Vladimir Putin would be elected to a third (now six-year) term as president in a few months; and little would change.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation of Tsar Vladimir: United Russia, despite maintaining majority status in the newly elected parliament, had by what all accounts was a dismal showing in the election despite major accusation of fraud (that would have inflated the party’s vote count), including concerns voiced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Protests – aided by social media (e.g., here and here) – have broken out in Russia, culminating in today’s unprecedented protests throughout the country but especially in Moscow where, according to the BBC, as many as 50,000 people may have gathered in the largest protests in Russia since the collapse of communism.

These developments raise some immediate challenges for our understanding of Russian politics. Is a Colored Revolution – long dreaded by the Kremlin – finally coming to Russia? Are the winds of the Arab Spring blowing back to Europe? Might we finally see a true Twitter Revolution (@stopputin), growing out of the fact that the Russian state controls TV but not the blogosphere (e.g., see Yale University professor Jason Lyall’s comments here)? Or is this just a blip along the road to politics as usual in Russia, with Putin on his way back to the Kremlin for 6 (12?) more years of the same iron grip on power?

While undoubtedly both Kremlin and opposition elites will have a large role to play in determining how Russian politics unfolds in the near future, I want to focus for a moment on the motivations of the masses, about which we know little at the moment beyond anecdotal observations of journalists.  Political science theory suggests two possible – not necessarily mutually exclusive – explanations for what is going on now.

Click here to continue.

Continue Reading

Guide to Today’s Russia Coverage at the Monkey Cage

For those interested in a quick primer on recent developments in Russia, here’s a guide to our posts today:

Continue Reading

Noncompetitve Elections and Information: A Theoretical Perspective on the 2011 Russian Elections

Finally (at least for today), we present the following response to the Russian parliamentary elections from Andrew Little, a Ph.D. candidate at NYU who is writing a dissertation on noncompetitive elections. In response to my queries, Andrew offered the following six points in response to the 2011 Russian elections:

1. Noncompetitive elections—those where the ultimate winner is not in doubt—matter. In one of my papers, I argue the main reasons they matter is because of the information they generate. Even if United Russia was never in danger of losing control of the Duma, the results last week seem to have drastically changed beliefs about the strength of Putin/United Russia and how long the regime will last. These elections are not window dressing or a facade to confer legitimacy—by what definition of legitimacy could anyone possibly be convinced by these elections that Putin’s rule is legitimate?—but are meaningful political events because they generate public information about the strength and popularity of the incumbent and opposition groups.

Most of the analysis of this election has not been about the implications of United Russia no longer having a supermajority in the Duma, but about the information generated by the lower-than expected result. I think this is the proper thing to focus on in Russian elections and in other noncompetitive elections.

2. Fraud is not necessarily about winning elections, but is often an attempt to manipulate the information generated by elections. While this election got pretty close, United Russia consistently has cheated in elections that were not close. In fact, fraud is rarely pivotal in determining the winner of elections and there is more fraud in elections that are not close (See the work of Alberto Simpser ). Joseph Kennedy may have claimed to be “willing to buy as many votes as necessary to win, but he was damned if he would buy a single extra one,” but this sentiment is inconsistent with the empirical record on fraud.

3. Even if fraud is about distorting information, it may not fool anyone. Much that is written about fraud conjures images of powerful dictators manipulating passive citizens and outside observers into seeming invincible, but these observers are clearly well aware that fraud is going on. A great quote along these lines comes from Sergei Kovalev, a Russian Democracy advocate: “You lie, your listeners knows this and you know that they don’t believe you … Everybody knows everything. The very lie no longer aspires to deceive anyone, from being a means of fooling people it has for some reason turned into an everyday way of life, a customary and obligatory rule for living.’’

4. So why does fraud happen? In a working paper I argue that since fraud is a (partially) hidden action, incumbent leaders can’t “commit” to hold completely honest elections. Observers know this and as a result will always infer there is going to be fraud, so incumbents not committing fraud would seem weaker than they really are. In game-theoretic terms, fraud doesn’t fool anyone in equilibrium, but since committing more or less than expected can fool people it still occurs.

5. It may seem odd given the cheating we observed that United Russia allowed international monitors like those from the OSCE, surely knowing that their report would at least be somewhat negative. However, imagine what would have happened if United Russia banned all international monitors. I suspect that citizens, opposition groups, and the international community would have just assumed that there was even more cheating, and the end result of the election demonstrating the unpopularity of the regime would have been unchanged. That is, the official result may have changed, but not the information conveyed by the result.

6. Protests over fraud may be less about fraud than the fact that the election result revealed the weakness of the regime. Most of the protests seem centered around the regime cheating, but the regime has been cheating for a long time. What has changed is that they did less well in the election, signaling weakness and potentially lowering the costs or increasing the benefits to protest. So the fact that protesters think fraud was committed matters, but only in the sense that it means for a fixed reported election result, increasing beliefs about how much fraud was committed makes observers thing the regime was weaker or less popular.

Continue Reading