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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Can Electoral Systems Cure Democracies and End Civil Wars?

Electoral systems are what we call the rules used to organize voting and then to convert votes into election outcomes. For at least the past few decades, political scientists have been fascinated by the idea that certain electoral systems might help “troubled” societies heal what ails them. One recent contribution to this literature appears in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Democracy, in the form of an article asserting that majoritarian electoral systems should work better than proportional representation (PR) at keeping new democracies alive and ending violent conflicts. The January article is a response to a piece in the previous issue asserting the opposite, that new democracies in the Middle East and North Africa could improve their chances for survival by adopting PR. ( If you don’t know what these labels mean and are curious to learn, Georgetown University’s Charles King offers a simple primer here.)

The literature on electoral-system design as a policy instrument is produced by very smart people, but it still feels like a big “Coke! Pepsi!” fight to me.

For one thing, empirical evidence of the effects of electoral systems on outcomes like democratic consolidation and conflict resolution is, and will probably remain, too ambiguous to resolve the argument. Articles often toss out a couple of supporting examples, but the fact of the matter is that these systems are really complex, and the conditions under which they operate vary widely. Because the systems are so complex, any particular combination of rules has often only been tried one or a few times in the real world. Because the numbers of similar and contrasting cases are inevitably small, it’s impossible to make the kinds of sharp comparisons we’d need to infer causality with any confidence.

Second and more important, this literature consistently ignores the real-world politics of institutional design that would inevitably be involved in making the choices it recommends. Electoral systems aren’t drawn up and plunked down by technocrats hoping to make democracy stick or to end fighting. Instead, they’re usually the products of tough bargaining among loose coalitions of shrewd actors all looking for a selfish edge. Iraq and Afghanistan under foreign occupation in the 2000s are about as close as the real world will ever come to the conditions in which technical experts were in a position to prescribe and impose systems designed to achieve certain ends. Yet, in both cases, the systems that emerged deviated substantially from expert recommendations after local actors (understandably and appropriately) asserted themselves and injected their own ideas and interests into the process. If paper solutions couldn’t get translated into practice under those conditions, it’s hard to see how this literature is going to become much more than an intellectual exercise unless and until it incorporates the politics of institutional choice into its recommendations.

Last but not least, articles in this vein often gloss over the fact that decisions about electoral-system design inevitably involve trade-offs between different values. As Pippa Norris puts it,

There is no single ‘best’ system: these arguments represent irresolvable value conflicts. For societies, which are raven [sic] by deep-rooted ethnic, religious or ethnic divisions, like Mali, Russia, or Israel, the proportional system may prove more inclusive (Lijphart 1977), but it may also reinforce rather than ameliorate these cleavages (Tsebelis 1990). For states, which are already highly centralized, like Britain or New Zealand, majoritarian systems can insulate the government from the need for broader consultation and democratic checks and balances. In constitutional design it appears that despite the appeal of ‘electoral engineering’ there are no easy choices.

Until the literature starts dealing more effectively with these issues–the ambiguity of the empirical evidence, the hard politics of institutional change, and the inevitability of trade-offs between supposed ends–I’m going to keep hearing “Tastes great! Less filling!” whenever I read pieces like the ones in the recent issues of JoD.

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