Comparative Politics

Post-Election Report: Romanian’s Presidential Impeachment Referendum, and a Request for Help in Identifying Potential Fraud

Aug 9 '12

The following is a guest post from Princeton political scientist Grigore Pop-Eleches on recent political developments in Romania that culminated in a referendum to confirm the impeachment of the president. The material is particularly timely, as the Romanian Constitutional Court is currently hearing challenges to the results of this referendum on the basis of electoral fraud. Although the post is a bit longer than our normal posts, I strongly urge readers with any experience in using analytical techniques to detect electoral fraud to read the post through to the end, and, if you have any thoughts, to either leave them in the comments section or to contact Pop-Eleches directly.


This post is a bit of an odd mix. First, I will try to report on the ongoing political crisis in Romania, which raises a lot of interesting questions for political scientists who study democratization, European integration and political institutions. Secondly, however, I hope to get some advice from readers of the blog about ways one might be able to establish the existence and magnitude of electoral fraud. This is not simply an academic challenge but might have political implications given that (as I explain below) on August 31st the Romanian Constitutional Court will decide on the validation of the referendum and, therefore, statistical evidence of turnout fraud uncovered before that date could influence the outcome. (Needless to say, this also raises the stakes of being wrong…)

Over the past five months, Romania has undergone what has arguably been the most serious political crisis since the miners’ strikes of the early 1990s. Whether or not one wants to go as far as calling it a constitutional coup d’etat, the government of PM Victor Ponta has used its newly established parliamentary majority to launch a massive attack on the political institutions that were not yet under its control, particularly the Presidency and the Constitutional Court. While the details and democratic implications of these moves have been discussed widely in the international press – for a good overview see Kim Scheppele’s posts on Paul Krugman’s NYT blog (here and here) – in this blog post I want to focus on one of the crucial elements of this political strategy: the referendum to confirm the impeachment of President Traian Basescu, which was voted by a wide parliamentary majority on July 6, 2012, and took place on July 29.

In order to validate Basescu’s impeachment, the referendum needed to fulfill two conditions: a turnout of 50%+1 of registered voters and a majority of yes-votes among voters to the referendum question: “Do you agree with the dismissal of the President of Romania Mr Traian Băsescu?” After initially trying to get rid of the 50% turnout requirement (despite a ruling by the Constitutional Court that such a change would be unconstitutional), the Ponta government caved in to EU pressure and stuck with the 50% turnout rule. Given that public opinion polls suggested that roughly two thirds of likely voters would support the dismissal, it quickly became clear that the crucial question would be whether the government would succeed in getting 50% of voters to show up on Election Day. Consequently, Basescu reversed his initial plea for voters to turn out and vote no, and instead endorsed the rational strategy of encouraging his supporters to stay home in order to deprive the referendum of its 50% quorum. In the end, on August 1 the Romanian Electoral Commission announced a turnout of 46.24% with 87.6% of those voting answering “yes”.

Given that this turnout was clearly short of the 50% threshold, most observers expected the Constitutional Court decision on whether the referendum should be validated to be a mere formality. However, the Ponta government made a surprise move in that it decided to contest the results of the referendum before the Constitutional Court, which decided to postpone the final decision about the referendum validation until September 12 (though it was later moved up to August 31).  The Romanian government motivated its injunction by claiming that the electoral lists overstate the number of eligible voters, because they do not accurately reflect the number of deaths and the numbers of Romanians living abroad whose citizenship has lapsed (Romanians have the right to vote abroad as long they have not given up citizenship and their papers have not expired). While it is probably true that Romanian electoral rolls are in need of updating, this decision is bizarre for at least two reasons: First, the government is trying to change the denominator to the turnout calculation post facto, which to the best of my knowledge is unprecedented (at least in democratic countries) and is particularly odd because the government had organized the referendum and issued self-congratulatory statements about how well it had been organized. Second, the government is trying to use the data from the 2011 census to contest the electoral lists, even though one of the two main parties in the governing coalition, the ex-communist Social Democratic Party (PSD), had previously tried to boycott the census and has since questioned its accuracy. The government even went as far as to try to conduct a new “mini-census” by instructing local mayors to get a sense of the number of people living in their towns, but seems to have backed away from this effort after a the Constitutional Court made it clear that it had not asked for such a measure and after the Interior Minister resigned citing undue pressures on his office. However, it is unclear what the government will try next, and the Constitutional Court has complained for the second time to the Venice Commission  about the political pressures bent on undermining its independence.

But while much of the focus in recent days has been on the denominator of the turnout statistic, I think that there are good reasons to focus at least some attention on the numerator: the votes that were purportedly cast in the referendum. While elections in Romania have generally improved over the course of the last two decades, electoral fraud at the local level still occurs fairly regularly. (After the 2009 presidential elections, which President Basescu narrowly won, Ponta famously said that “their” electoral fraud system had worked better.)

There are three main ways that electoral fraud can happen in the Romanian context. First, there could be outright ballot-stuffing at the polling station, and while a number of incidents of this kind were reported in the Romanian press, the presence of opposition observers at most polling stations should have limited the magnitude of this particular method.  Second, since Romania has no centralized system to detect double voting, it is possible for citizens to engage in multiple voting by voting at different polling stations on Election Day. Such “electoral tourism” has traditionally been organized by political parties of all stripes (who will bus supporters around), but this time around its utility was limited to opponents of Mr. Basescu, i.e. largely the governing USL coalition and its smaller allies. Third, local authorities intent on falsifying the ballot could use the mobile urn method to boost turnout. The mobile urn, which is intended for voters who cannot physically get to the polling station on voting day, offers an opportunity to avoid the watchful eye of polling station observers.

Traditionally – up to the local elections that took place in June 2012 – it would have been possible to detect evidence for both of the latter two options through the data reported by the Central Electoral Commission, which reported for each polling station the number of voters on supplementary voting lists (i.e. who were not on permanent voting lists at that polling station) and the number of votes cast through mobile urn. However, just prior to the referendum, the Romanian government passed ordinance #41 that modified the law governing the reporting requirements of polling stations and eliminated the reporting requirement for the supplementary lists and mobile urns! Not surprisingly, the opposition immediately decried the change as an invitation to electoral fraud.

Given this situation, the question is how one would go about establishing whether electoral fraud took place and what its likely magnitude was. In addition to the intentional scarcity of data about the composition of the local vote, the task is complicated by the fact that many of the traditional diagnostics used in traditional elections don’t easily translate to the referendum situation. Thus, the correlation between turnout and the vote share of the winner, which might catch ballot-stuffing efforts of dominant parties such as United Russia, is unlikely to work in the context of a referendum, where the rational strategy of would-be cheaters could well be to add a mix of yes and no ballots in order to drive up the turnout (since the share of the yes-vote was not the main concern).

Another option would be to compare the polling-station reported turnout levels to the normal distribution, which is generally assumed to hold in free and fair elections, may not hold in the context of this referendum, where the dominant strategy of part of the electorate would be to avoid voting altogether. This issue is complicated by the fact that in some places – including in Sibiu, from where I am writing this post – voters received fake mailings and text messages, purportedly written on behalf of the pro-Basescu camp, in which they were encouraged to go vote against the suspension. Thus, the national-level turnout figures are not normally distributed but they do not display the sorts of abnormalities that were seen as evidence of fraud in the Russian case (see Scott Gehlbach’s post on Monkeycage).

However, things get more interesting when we look at the subnational level. As can be seen in this map of turnout by county, turnout was well above average in the southern part of the country and low in Transylvania, and particularly in the counties with high Hungarian population shares.

But while these overall patterns are not surprising, because the South has traditionally been more supportive of Mr. Ponta’s ex-communist PSD party and voted in lower numbers for Mr. Basescu in the 2009 presidential elections, what is striking is the very high turnout in three of the southern counties: Olt (73.9%) Teleorman (70.2%) and Mehedinti (69.2%), where turnout was between 15-20% higher than even in the neighboring Southern counties.  Things get even stranger when we compare the distribution of turnout at the polling station level for the different counties. Thus, whereas, in other Southern counties, such as Arges and Dolj, turnout frequencies resembled the national pattern, in the three Southern outliers the distributions peaked at much higher levels and then dropped off quite sharply. Furthermore, whereas in Arges and Dolj only about 5% of polling stations reporting turnout above 85%, in Olt over 40% of polling stations were above 85% and over 15% of polling stations with at least fifty registered voters reported turnout above 100%!

The reason why such turnout figures are even mathematically possible, is that Romania’s electoral law allows voters in national elections who are out of town on voting day to vote at any polling station (in Romania or abroad) by just presenting a valid national ID or passport. As a result, in some of the polling stations that were set up in tourist areas – and not surprisingly the Romanian government did its best to set up as many as possible, including in restaurants and hotels on the Black Sea Coast – it was not uncommon to observe turnout rates of 200-300% (including 10 polling stations above 1000% turnout). Such tourist-targeting voting stations may of course be vulnerable to multiple votes and while the total number of such stations was limited, polling stations with turnout above 200% accounted for about 135,000 votes or about .75% of registered voters. The even more important concern are the roughly 366,000 voters (2% of registered voters) who voted in the 657 polling stations reporting between 90-200% turnout, especially given that many of these are in small villages that do not represent obvious tourist destinations (except perhaps of the electoral variety). Remarkably, more than half (56%) of the votes in this latter category came from the three Southern counties – Olt, Teleorman, and Mehedinti – even though the three counties accounted for only 5.3% of registered voters. However, this obviously does not mean that fraud occurred in all of these high turnout polling stations or that it was limited to them (see e.g. the 50% “bump” in Mehedinti, which resembles patterns in Russia).

As I mentioned at the outset, I would appreciate any suggestions about strategies to go about this – especially if it could lead to some results before the Constitutional Court’s decision on August 31st.