Electoral Systems Are Like Ecosystems

Evidence is mounting that efforts to quash election fraud often displace it instead, and this pattern should change the way we think about the problem of promoting democracy and encouraging clean elections.

Earlier this month, I blogged about a new journal article showing a statistical link between the presence of international election observation missions and the occurrence of declines in the quality of governance. According to that paper’s authors,

As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished…When election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance.

This morning, the Monkey Cage blog ran a guest post from NYU post-doc Fredrik Sjoberg, whose analysis of election data from Azerbaijan suggests that the installation of web cameras in polling stations doesn’t reduce electoral fraud so much as it changes how fraud is conducted. In the election Sjoberg studied, authorities seem to have responded to the new technology by tinkering with the count after the ballots were cast, and the net impact of the webcam rollout on the integrity of the vote was nil. That pattern led Sjoberg to the following depressing conclusion:

By replacing one form of fraud with another, incumbents are able to prevent vote share losses while contributing a veneer of legitimacy by self-initiating anti-fraud measures.  It therefore seems like a win-win for the autocrat.

As Joshua Tucker said in a follow-up post at the Monkey Cage, Sjoberg’s study…

…raises a very tricky question for anyone advocating for free and fair elections in countries with less than stellar records in this regard. Should webcams in polling stations be embraced as a technology that at the very least decreases one form of electoral fraud? Or perhaps should they be a cause for concern as a technology that is likely to replace a more easily observable (and easier to publicize) form of fraud—ballot stuffing—with one that is more subtle and less observable: the manipulation of precinct level results…If we want to take this one step further, then we could argue…that by making local agents engage in a type of fraud that is less likely to be publicly discovered, webcams could perhaps make leaders more likely to engage in fraud than otherwise.

These studies do not mean that people interested in cleaning up elections should stop trying to fight electoral fraud and abuse. Even if current efforts are not always producing the intended effects, it’s hard to imagine that they are not at least marginally reducing opportunities for cheating and making it costlier.

Instead, these studies underscore the importance of thinking about electoral interventions and their likely impacts in more holistic terms. Consistent with modernist thinking about politics more generally, efforts to study and manipulate the conduct of elections in recent decades have often treated electoral systems like machinery. The whole can be described as the sum of its parts, each of which addresses a distinct technical problem that can be considered and solved in isolation.

What these studies suggest, though, is that electoral systems are more like ecosystems. In ecosystems, a disruption in one element or region can ripple through the whole in ways that are often difficult to predict. As Nigel Greening blogged, that’s because…

…ecosystems are non-linear systems. A system is usually non-linear when more than one factor mutually affects other factors. The mutual bit is the important part as it results in a feedback loop. For example: wolves eat deer. The more wolves, the more deer get eaten, so the less deer there are to breed, so the fewer deer there are to eat, so the less wolves have to eat, so the fewer wolves, so less deer get eaten. You get the idea: any change to one side changes the other side, which in turn changes the first side, which again changes the second and so on for ever. It looks like a cycle, but it isn’t. Ever.

As Greening goes on to say, non-linearity means that change in the system is sometimes radical; the timing of those radical changes is often unpredictable; and those radical changes are always, in some sense, irreversible. For example, apparently incremental changes in the size of one population can sometimes push that population over a threshold that leads to mass death, as famously happened with reindeer on St. Matthew Island, Alaska, in the early 1960s. In retrospect, we can understand this causes of crash, but in real time it must have been freakish and stunning.

If electoral systems function more like ecosystems than engines, then our attempts to manipulate them will always be confounded by unpredictable shifts and unintended consequences. Again, though, that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Instead, I think it just means we will usually be more successful when we treat the system as a coherent whole instead of fixating on the parts we think we can most readily manipulate.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting post. I’d be careful about these research findings, even if it’s based on published research. Often this research has selection problems in the statistical models that are difficult to correct for, and the measures used to think about government “fraud” are very unrelated to elections and the outcomes could be explained by other things.
    I’ve just written a book on election monitoring myself (called Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works and Why It Often Fails (Princeton)), the product of six years’s work and I’ve written lots of other article about this. You can read more about it here https://sites.duke.edu/kelley/

    Best,
    Judith

    Reply
    • Thanks very much for reading and commenting, Judith. If you ever feel like blogging on this topic, I’d love to have you write a guest post (or posts). Perhaps one describing the main findings from your new book?

      On the difficulties of modeling these relationships, you’re right, of course. Still, I thought the authors of these papers–especially Simpser and Donno–did a good job acknowledging and trying to mitigate those problems in their analyses. Part of what I’m getting at with this ecosystem metaphor is that we’re never going to isolate causes and effects in this research as tidily as we’d like, and even if we could, the world will have changed a bit by the time we do. That said, I think we can see broad patterns emerge, and the one that catches my eye here is the adaptability of authoritarian regimes in response to pressures to hold clean elections.

      Reply
  2. Tracy Lightcap

     /  May 20, 2012

    Reminds me of what Boss Tweed said about this: “It’s not who casts the votes, it’s who counts them.” Plus ca change …

    Reply

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