2016 Presidential Election

What political science tells us about electoral fraud and protest

Jan 25 '19
(FILE) – A wounded protester as thousands take to the streets during a protest against President Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, January 23, 2019. MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/EPA-EFE/REX)

Editor’s note: In light of recent development in Venezuela, where allegations of a fraudulent election have led to massive protests, we are re-upping this Monkey Cage post from senior editor Joshua Tucker on the relationship between electoral fraud and protest. While the post was written in response to allegations prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election by then candidate Donald Trump that the U.S. election was likely to be rigged, the set of explanations it provides are general and are based on a publication by Tucker in the journal Perspectives on Politics. This journal article references the “Colored Revolutions” that took place in the early-mid 2000s in a number of post-communist countries, where the political situation was reminiscent of contemporary Venezuela. We are also pleased to note that the journal has agreed temporarily to ungate the article in conjunction with this Monkey Cage post, so it is freely available to anyone who is interested in reading it through the end of March 2019.

There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent weeks on Donald Trump’s claims that today’s vote is likely to be rigged. Putting aside the fact that there is very little evidenceif anyof vote rigging in U.S. elections, the fact that one of the two major party presidential candidates is even raising this issue suggests it is important to consider the potential consequences of such claims.

As it turns out, there have actually been many elections outsides the United States marred by significant accusation of voter fraud, a non-trivial number of which have been followed by major protests. Political scientists, in turn, have theorized about the determinants of protest, and, in particular, about the relationship between electoral fraud and protest. Based on my own research on this topic, here are what I think are three key factors of which Americans ought to be cognizant in the coming days:

Electoral fraud is a powerful tool to overcome barriers to protest

One way political scientists think about protest is as a cost-benefit calculation: If I decide to participate in a protest, what are the likely benefits that could come about from that protest? What are the likely costs I could bear from participating in that protest? From this perspective, the likelihood of participating in a protest increases as the costs of protesting go down and the potential benefits from the protest go up.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/08/a-comprehensive-average-of-election-forecasts-points-to-a-decisive-clinton-victory/”]A comprehensive average of election forecasts points to a decisive Clinton victory[/interstitial_link]

Allegations of electoral fraud can affect this calculus in two ways. First, the likely “benefits” from a successful protest of a fraudulent election is almost undoubtedly going to be higher than just about anything one might protest in the cost of one’s daily life, precisely because a “success” in a protest against a fraudulent election is to actually change the result of an election. Short of revolutionary uprisings, there are very few things one could protest against (e.g., a law, a fine, a policy) that holds open the possibility of such a large “benefit” as overturning an election.

In countries where protest has the potential to be met by repression (i.e., threats to one’s physical security, including violence and/or arrest), protesting against electoral fraud has the added benefit of decreasing the likelihood of being personally punished because everyone (or at least everyone on one side of the political divide) is “suffering” from the same grievance simultaneously. This, in turn, makes the possibility the large numbers of people will participate in a protest more likely than if, for instance, you are protesting about being unjustly detained by the police (in which case you personally are almost certain to bear any costs of the protest).

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/08/hillary-clinton-will-gain-votes-after-election-night-heres-why/”]Hillary Clinton will gain votes after election night. Here’s why.[/interstitial_link]

Taken together, the added benefits and reduced costs of protesting electoral fraud makes protests following allegations of electoral fraud more likely than many other political or nonpolitical events.

How might this play out in an established democratic state? There are reasons to think that the logic of this argument suggests it could still be at play in a democracy, although potentially with less powerful reasoning.

First, the likelihood that an election result would be annulled in a long standing established democracy with institutional safeguards to guard against fraud — including a free press — would certainly be less than in a less well established democracy or competitive authoritarian (i.e., a regime with elections that are neither free nor fair) state. That being said, even a smaller chance of changing the outcome of an election might still be a big enough potential “benefit” to draw people out onto the streets, especially following an election campaign like the one we’ve just witnessed in the United States.

Second, the “costs” in terms of expected physical repression from security forces would very likely be lower in the United States than in, for example, a country like Egypt or Uzbekistan. That being said, it is still possible that more people to share potential costs of protesting might decrease the cost to any one individual. Moreover, conversely, there might be what we call “experiential” benefits to protesting in a relatively safe environment, which is a technical way of saying people might enjoy taking part in these kind of activities, especially if they thought there was no real physical risk to doing so.

Credible allegations of fraud ought to make protest more likely than simply innuendo

A crucial part of the logic of the previous argument is that protest following allegations of electoral fraud is more likely if there is perceived to be a chance of getting a big benefit from changing the outcome of the election. The reason that electoral fraud holds open this promise is a belief that if allegations of fraud are substantiated, then there could be a new election, as was the case in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution.

Actual evidence of electoral fraud, therefore, should make the possibility that an election result could be overturned appear more realistic than simply rumors of fraud. Thus while Trump simply repeating that the system is rigged might have an effect on whether his supporters participate in the election, it is less clear whether these claims absent any evidence would encourage them to take to the street in protest.

Allegations of electoral fraud in close elections ought to spur more people to protest than in elections that are not close

Again, this follows from the same logic that the likelihood of protest is greater when the potential “benefit” from protesting is larger. Thus, if an election is close, the likelihood that correcting fraud could overturn the result is higher than if an election is not close. This in turn means that more potential protesters should decide the expected benefits from participating in a protest against electoral fraud following a close election will exceed the costs of doing so than following an election that is not close.

Implications for the coming weeks in the United States

For the first time in the modern era, a United States presidential candidate from a major party has suggested that the elections may be rigged. Political science theory suggests that if enough of his supporters believe that the results of the election are fraudulent, protests aimed at trying to overturn the results of the election are not out of the question. However, it is important to note that most recent examples of such protests do not come from established democratic systems with as long a history of democratic rule as is found in the United States.

At the same time, theory also suggests that in the absence of credible evidence of electoral fraud, such protests are considerably less likely. That being said, this in turn raises the question of whether we have entered a “post-truth” era, in which social media and the Internet have rendered actual evidence of the truth of political claims less important than they may previously have been. (As an aside, it is also clearly the case that organizing protest is easier in a social media world than it was in a the pre-social media world).

Finally, we should expect a close election — combined with allegations of electoral fraud — to be more likely to generate protest than an election that is not close. And on that score at least — the closeness of the election — we should be able to have some more information in hand shortly.