Two-Day Workshop"The Causes and Consequences of Electoral Fraud: Lessons from established democracies"

November 1, 2013


Workshop Memo(November 1-2, 2013)

The overarching purpose of this workshop is to explore whether there are lessons to be learned from how election fraud subsided or was reduced in past historical instances of democratization and what those theoretical and applied lessons might be. For emerging democracies today, the nineteenth and twentieth century historical experiences in Europe and America (ranging from northwestern Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia, to Latin America), offer possible insights into two interrelated questions that will occupy us: The first concerns what strategies, if any, were used to combat election fraud historically and, second, the extent to which they were successful in helping make democratic practice of elections fairer and freer.[1]  The focus will thus be on institutional reforms or changes in electoral “technology” (broadly construed) such as the introduction of the secret ballot, alteration of electoral systems, as well as the development of a system of electoral governance (e.g. who was responsible for registering voters, conducting elections; who certified vote tallies; the procedure of election petitions and challenging results, and adjudicating conflict etc.).


In thinking about types of election fraud, Birch’s (2012) distinction between rule fraud, vote fraud and voter fraud might prove useful. The first is thus concerned with manipulation of the electoral rules to systematically bias the outcome (such as through gerrymandering or malapportionment). Vote fraud covers a broad range of intentional distortion of the way votes are registered, collected and counted, often discussed under headings such as ballot stuffing and registration padding. Voter fraud, finally, is about infringements in the freedom of the voter to choose, typically involving monetary or other material inducements (vote buying) or threats of or direct usage of violence (intimidation).


Though our focus is on political process and the causes and consequences of specific purposive political institutional reforms to “clean up” elections that have the effect of assuring democratic elections are more democratic, we expect that papers will also confront two important caveats and insights that complicate our efforts.  First, it is possible that the elimination of the types of election practices we call “electoral fraud” are at least to some degree the byproduct of broad and often sweeping impersonal (i.e. socioeconomic and/or cultural) forces or structural prerequisites that make political reforms either epiphenomenal or even irrelevant. Second, “cleaning up” elections itself is a project that has often historically been used to as an excuse to suppress the right to vote and to shape electorates in ways that violate democratic norms (Schaffer, 2008).  Sometimes reforms are undertaken with these anti-democratic aims; other times, they merely have these effects.


Recognizing both of these points, we hope the contributors to the workshop will bear the following questions in mind:  (a) what precise institutional reforms in the rise of democracy were most decisive in helping reduce electoral fraud and what were the political processes that gave rise to these reforms?; (b) did institutional reforms to reduce electoral fraud ever have the (intended or unintended) side-effect of not only “cleaning up” elections but also diminishing the quality of democracy? If so, under what conditions?; and (c) can we identify the impact of institutional reforms vis-à-vis structural conditions in reducing electoral fraud in the rise of democracy?


Part of the challenge in addressing these questions is the recognition that institutional interventions (e.g. the secret ballot, the judicialization of the election challenge process) are shaped not only by the structural conditions in which they occur but may also have effects that are conditional on preexisting institutional contexts.  It may be, for example, that the judicialization of elections only made a difference historically if an effective rule of law or judicial process already existed; or that a secret ballot may have democratizing effects, but only if designed in certain ways and if introduced into contexts of high literacy.  We hope that papers will address precisely these conditional or contextual factors so that practitioners, policy-makers, and scholars alike can begin to operate with fuller understanding of which institutional interventions make democratic elections more democratic; under what conditions they do; and what normative trade-offs might be involved in “making elections cleaner.”


Methodologically, we are open to a varying set of approaches, including thick descriptions of particular cases or historical instances, and detailed quantitative analyses that explore these issues both cross-temporally and cross-sectionally.


Our conference will gather around 15 scholars from the United States, Canada, and Europe to come together to discuss the issues at stake.  Some of these researchers will be asked to present papers, and some will be asked to discuss.  We generally expect to be able to fund expenses relating to travel to Cambridge MA, USA, and accommodation while at Harvard, along with meals. If all goes well, we should add, that we have the eventual aim of producing a collected volume of papers (in the form of a special issue of a journal or an edited monograph).

[1] For a normative conceptualization of these issues, see Dennis Thompson, Just Elections (2002).