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Why Dictators help us Watch them cheat

Before they emptied the ballot box to be counted, a group of poll workers semi-discretely placed a man in a puffy coat next to the table. As the (presumably legally cast) ballots were dropped on the table, the man in the puffy coat threw a stack of additional ballots in with the rest, almost certainly with the “Vladimir Putin” box ticked.

This kind of activity was going on all over Russia during the 2011 election, as it does to varying degrees in nearly all elections past and present. What is more uncommon is the fact that we can watch this usually hidden action thanks to a webcam placed in the polling station. Had the polling station workers been a bit more careful about camera angles, the ballot stuffing may have gone un-noticed. Instead, the result was just one of many embarrassing pieces of footage — nearly all polling stations were outfitted with webcams for this election — documenting electoral fraud.

Several aspects of this footage may seem puzzling. First, a common intuition is that fraud is a tool used by politicians to win elections: the obligatory quote here comes from John F. Kennedy, who joked at the Gridiron Dinner in 1958 “”I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.””  However, the Russian election in 2011 was not one that Putin had any meaningful chance of losing: In the end, he won 63% of the vote, with the second place candidate getting less than 20%. So why bother going through the costly and potentially embarrassing act of cheating?

Second, while there is some debate as to whether Putin wanted the local officials to be cheating as much as they did on his behalf, it is safe to assume that he was at least aware that such activity was going on. So, why install webcams in polling stations knowing they would capture footage of fraud? Perhaps more consequentially, why also invite international monitoring groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe to watch the elections knowing they are likely to release a critical report?

While individually puzzling, perhaps the strangest aspect of this video and the fraud it represents is the fact that regimes simultaneously invite scrutiny to elections where they are cheating, despite not needing the cheating to win. This combination is quite widespread: from 1990-2006, roughly a quarter of presidential elections in non-consolidated democracies had both a presence of international monitors and evidence of major electoral fraud.

In “Fraud and Monitoring in Noncompetitive Elections”, I develop and game-theoretic model to make sense of these facts.

Here is the crux of the argument. Suppose you are a dictator, who cares about seeming strong and popular in order for elites and citizens to continue accepting your rule. As nearly all dictators do these days, you occasionally hold elections, which by a combination of genuine support, blatant manipulation of the process (such as banning particularly threatening candidates), and discrete fraud like what we observed on the webcam, you are surely going to win. However, since you care about looking strong and popular, you care not just about winning, but how much you win by: if you got 70% of the vote in the last election, then only getting 55% this time around may be just as bad as losing outright. For now, suppose there are no webcams or international monitoring groups around to detect your ballot stuffing. So, there is an incentive to stuff ballot boxes to increase your vote share.

However, the elites and citizens that you want to seem strong to are not fools, and know that you have this incentive to cheat. Suppose a group of elites who’s support you need to maintain power will stick with you as long as they think you would get 50% of the vote in an honest election. These elites expect that you will commit enough fraud to inflate your vote share by 10%. So, to get their compliance, you need to get 60% of the vote. If you think your true popularity is a bit above 50%, it is probably worth paying the cost of committing the amount of fraud required to boost the result by 10% to ensure a compliant elite.

However, this is a bit frustrating to you the dictator, as you are paying a cost to falsify ballots only to have the elites discount the result! In other words, dictators have to commit fraud to keep up with the expectations that they will do so, otherwise they end up looking weaker than they actually are.

Installing webcams and inviting international monitors provides a partial solution to this problem. In the extreme where such technology directly revealed how much you cheat, there would be no reason to do so: if all fraud is observed, you could commit none and everyone would know the election was clean. Paradoxically, the fact that some technologies of fraud are discrete, which would seem to benefit the regimes that can use them, is precisely what leads to wasteful fraud. As a result, it can be worth paying for webcams to reduce the expectation of how much you are going to cheat.

However, even with webcams in ever station and OSCE monitors roving the countryside, there is always some chance of getting away with fraud: recall if the man in the puffy jacket had been angled slightly differently we may never have known about the origin of the ballots he threw on the table. The formal model in the paper shows that as long as there is some chance of getting away with fraud, the dictator always does some ballot stuffing, though the amount they choose is decreasing in how visible fraud is. Since fraud is costly, the dictator makes fraud as visible as possible while still cheating. So, all the motivating facts follow from the logic of the model: dictators choose both to commit fraud in an election they know they will win *and* take actions that make the fraud more visible!

Of course, dictators manipulate information through many means other than elections: falsifying economic data, censoring the news, and creating propaganda more generally. On the other hand, most autocratic regimes also make institutional decisions that make these actions harder, such as allowing some independence to those producing economic data and some media freedom. So, the logic of the model more broadly provides insight into how authoritarian (and potentially democratic) regimes manage information, facing a tension between wanting to manipulate information to their favor while also convincing their domestic audiences that they are not doing so.

About Andrew Little

Andrew Little

Andrew Little is an Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University. His research primarily uses game theory to model various aspects of authoritarian politics, in particular how regimes use technologies like elections, fraud, and propaganda to manipulate information about their performance. You can follow him on twitter at @anthlittle.

Andrew Little @ Cornell University

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Photo credits: © Steven Clevenger

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