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.

Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance? Actually, Yeah

According to a convincing new paper (ungated version here) by political scientists Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno, the answer is a definite yes.

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…

We argue that when election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance. While the effects of ballot fraud are generally limited to influencing electoral outcomes, many pre-election tools of manipulation—such as restricting media freedom and undermining judicial independence—have additional and much deeper consequences for the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and governmental accountability.

We put our proposition to the test using an original dataset of 944 elections in 144 countries around the world, from 1990 to 2007. The dataset features comprehensive information on the presence of election monitoring missions from 12 reputable international organizations and NGOs. In a series of quantitative analyses, we find evidence that highquality election monitoring missions are associated with a decrease in the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and media freedom. This finding is robust to a number of specifications, including an instrumental-variables approach that corrects for the possibility that monitoring could be endogenous to changes in governance.

It’s virtually impossible to establish causality from studies of observational data like this one, but Simpser and Donno do a good job increasing our confidence in their interpretation of the evidence with smart design choices and robustness checks. They also reinforce their argument with compelling anecdotes of the unintended effects in action in several recent cases. Here, for example, is how they describe the “spillover” effects in Peru in 2000:

Expecting intense international scrutiny in the 2000 election, incumbent president Alberto Fujimori expended considerable effort and resources to bribe legislators and Supreme Court judges, and to secure control over the media, in the years preceding that election. McMillan and Zoido-Lobatón (2004), on the basis of a leaked series of incriminating videos, estimate that Fujimori and his close aides spent over $3 million per month on bribes to TV stations. The losses to society associated with such actions are extensive. First, governance, the rule of law, and freedom of the media were clearly undermined in a general sense, even if their primary motivation was to guarantee Fujimori a third term of rule. Second, managing the entire system of corruption—obtaining resources for bribing, giving out the bribes, and supervising the media to keep it all under wraps—undoubtedly diverted the attention of top government officials from the tasks of governing. As Shleifer and Vishny (1993) argue, covert corruption is especially damaging to societal well-being, because it provides incentives for government to allocate resources to those sectors where it can most easily pursue corruption, not those with the greatest potential for social and economic development.

The authors are quick to point out that the negative effects they observe do not mean that international election observation is necessarily a bad idea, just that its effects are more complicated than we often presume.

Our findings do not imply that monitoring is unambiguously harmful. Even in cases where monitoring harms governance, it could have other positive effects, possibly over the longer-term, that balance or even outweigh the negative consequences. A more complex analysis would therefore be necessary in order to assess the full welfare effects of monitoring. What we have shown here is that the possibility of spillover effects [on governance and press freedom] should be included in any such assessment.

Ironically, the strategic interplay between regimes and observers that seems to be driving these unintended and unfortunate side-effects is reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse games those same regimes play with their domestic opponents. The neighborhood watchdog chases the house cat who hunts the mouse who calls for help from the dog…

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