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How to Steal an Election

Thursday, July 2, 2009 9:28 PM

Imagine you're an aspiring dictator looking to steal a national election by stuffing ballot boxes or making sure that a batch of votes -- say, even in your opponent's hometown -- simply disappears. Do you engineer a victory by a razor-thin margin, 51 to 49 percent or so, to make things look legit? Nope. If you're going to cheat, cheat big.

That's the lesson of a 2008 study by University of Chicago political scientist Alberto Simpser, who examined dubious elections from 1990 to 2007. From Armenia and Belarus to Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Simpser found that incumbents often aren't content to simply defeat their opponents and hold on to power for one more term -- they want to trounce them.

In "Cheating Big: On the Logic of Electoral Corruption in Developing Countries," Simpser, a native of Mexico who grew up watching the ruling PRI rack up big electoral victories, argues that large-scale vote-rigging can yield big benefits beyond simple reelection. Massive victories "can discourage opponents from joining or supporting rival parties, from voting, or from participating in other ways," he writes. "It can motivate supporters as well."

The idea is to win not just the current election, but future ones too. Even in elections in which incumbents held commanding pre-vote leads, the compulsion to win overwhelmingly is common -- especially in "semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian" regimes, Simpser contends, "where multiple parties contest elections regularly . . . but where the incumbent holds great advantages."

Which, come to think of it, sounds a little like Iran. So what does Simpser make of the June 12 election in that country, where the official announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi by 63 to 33 percent sparked widespread protests and a government crackdown? Without passing judgment on whether fraud took place, Simpser thinks his logic holds up. "For a regime like Iran's with internal divisions, a weak economy and foreign enemies, a convincing victory would be very useful," he said.

Even Iran's supreme leader seemed to make that argument when he spoke out in defense of the official results: "If the difference was 100,000 or 500,000 or 1 million, well, one may say fraud could have happened. But how can one rig 11 million votes?"

-- Carlos Lozada

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