“Assessing Electoral Fraud in New Democracies: Refining the Vocabulary” by Chad Vickery and Erica Shein

Reference: International Foundation for Electoral Systems


Regrettably enough, electoral fraud and electoral malpractice are still things to be concerned about as the two continue to distort electoral processes and electoral integrity in many countries around the  world. However, the discussion among electoral practitioners and scholars about issues of electoral  integrity, fraud and malpractice has suffered from a regrettable lack of agreement about definitions and interpretations of such phenomena.

It is, therefore, very commendable that IFES has put effort into an attempt to provide definitions and a vocabulary, which in my opinion are clear, consistent and potentially very useful if/when applied not only by scholars, but also by electoral practitioners trying to decrease the prevalence of electoral fraud and electoral malpractice.

Jørgen Elklit, Professor of Political Science, Aarhus University, Denmark

I. Introduction

Electoral fraud has a well-documented history, dating back to the fledgling democracies of the 19th century and their predecessors. Among contemporary democracies – nascent and consolidated alike – fraud provides an unfortunate common ground that transcends culture, religion and geography. As a general area of academic research, the interested reader can find a robust collection of studies assessing or comparing individual cases of election fraud. However, as R. Michael Alvarez, Thad Hall and Susan Hyde observed in a 2008 volume entitled Election Fraud, “work to date includes little systematic research on how election fraud can be detected and deterred.” We believe that this is due, in part, to a  lack of consensus over what is truly meant by the terms electoral fraud, malpractice and systemic manipulation.This paper seeks to provide clarity in the search for appropriate definitions that will be able to inform efforts to combat fraud and malpractice, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to fight a problem that is not well-articulated.

Several definitions and terms have been proposed by scholars in recent years. They range from overly restrictive to nearly all-inclusive; our challenge is to alight on a point in between that is precise enough to be useful but not so narrow as to falsely delimit the scope of efforts to combat election-related crimes. And, more importantly, none of these attempts have yet to generate a definition of electoral fraud that is largely acceptable to the broader community.

In this white paper, we will first conduct a brief review of the existing literature by segmenting the
definitions offered into two broad categories. Category one encompasses inclusive definitions, which are broad-based and often reference democratic norms or international standards (i.e., it is fraud if it violates principles of free and fair elections and the rights of citizens to choose their representatives). Category two includes narrow conceptions that generally take a law-based approach to identifying fraud (i.e., it is fraud if it violates the domestic laws governing elections in a country).

There are elements of both approaches that are useful in efforts to eradicate fraud. However, at the extremes, neither approach is a clear winner. Proponents of the broad approach to defining electoral fraud would note that inclusivity will ensure that as many fraud risks as possible are tackled, so as to safeguard the credibility of the electoral process. However, if every possible violation or irregularity is deemed fraud, election managers will find it difficult (if not impossible) to prioritize genuine risks to the electoral process. A very restrictive interpretation of the fraud problem, on the other hand, could result in election managers and other stakeholders overlooking serious threats to the legitimacy of an election until it is too late to salvage.

Second, we propose a framework for understanding election fraud and malpractice that builds on our previous work on this subject and takes into account comments from election practitioners and
academics made at the 2011 International Political Science Association-European Consortium of Political  Research (IPSA-ECPR) Joint Conference in Brazil. This framework seeks to avoid some of the drawbacks of definitions that have been proposed by our colleagues in the election community, discussed more fully below. Through this effort, IFES seeks to bridge the gap between academic research and its practical applications in election contexts around the world.

View the full report here.


© 2012 International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)