Electoral fraud

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Electoral fraud is the deliberate interference with the process of an election. Fraud can be used to inflate the votes for the favored candidate or deflate the votes of the opposition.



Inflating the vote can be accomplished by buying or coercing votes from persons who would normally vote for another candidate or would not vote at all, but who are nevertheless eligible to vote; by registering false voters such as the deceased; by recording multiple votes from a single voter; or by subverting the vote counting process itself (such as "stuffing" a ballot box with false ballots before the actual vote begins, or bribing those persons who count the ballots).

Deflating the vote can by accomplished by intimidating voters and preventing them from voting (such as by voter suppression, random violence near polling places or other forms of electioneering), by controlling the ballot counting process, or by "losing" or "misplacing" ballot boxes. The vote can also be deflated by interfering with postal or absentee ballots, or disqualifying them on technical grounds. For example, the perpetrator of the fraud could require signatures on absentee military ballots after they have been cast but before they have been counted. More dramatic is "four-legged voting," where precinct workers would pull the levers on voting machines instead of the voter; this was once practiced in Chicago.

It has always been possible to alter voting machines so that they only record votes for a single candidate. Recently, however, a method of electoral fraud that has worried political activists is hacking electronic voting schemes to prevent ballots from being registered or by making them appear to select the wrong candidate. Identity theft is likely to become an issue if Internet voting schemes are implemented, since obtaining public records concerning registered voters is almost as easy as casting a "secure" vote using someone else's identity.

One simple, but notorious method of electoral fraud is the shoe polish method, which is often used in company towns. This method entails coating the voting-lever or voting-button of the opposing candidate(s) with shoe polish. To understand how this works, take the example of an employee of the company who, against the advice of the party in power, votes for the opposing candidate(s). After they leave the voting booth, a conspirator to the fraud (a precinct captain or other local V.I.P.) will handshake the voter. The conspirator will then subtly check their hand for any shoe polish and will note that the voter has left some shoe polish after the handshake. Soon that unfortunate voter gets fired from their job.

In Britain, one historically popular technique has been long known as granny farming, after a contemptuous slang designation for retirement homes. In this, party activists visit retirement homes, purportedly to help the elderly and immobile exercise their voting rights. Residents are asked to fill out 'absentee voter' forms, allowing them a proxy or postal vote. When the forms are signed and gathered, they are then secretly rewritten as applications for proxy votes, naming party activists or their friends and relatives as the proxies. These people, unknown to the voter, then cast the vote for the party of their choice. This trick relies on elderly care home residents typically being absent-minded, or suffering from dementia, or otherwise unlikely to cause a fuss.

Additionally, votes can also be influenced by counting. If the counting of votes is done out of the public view, as is the case for example in most of the United States today, then the votes can be manipulated without having to cause any fraud at the voting booth. Countries such as France count all votes publicly in order to make this method of electoral fraud more difficult.

Legal means of influencing the outcome of an election such as gerrymandering (drawing voting district lines in such a way as to obtain a favorable result) or including prison inmates in a local population are also often argued to be forms of electoral fraud.

Electoral fraud is not always subtle. Booth capturing is a persistent problem in Indian democracy where thugs of one party "capture" a polling booth and stamp their votes threatening everyone.

Electronic Frauds

Each technique used to collect and store votes has its own risks, thus electoral frauds are always possible. The fact that votes must be anonymous, to protect voters from illicit pressure, means that nobody can verify if each vote is what its (unknown) voter actually cast. For this reason the only way to have certainty about electoral results is to collect votes using secure and verifiable procedures.

Paper elections held under proper public monitoring can guarantee fair and square elections because humans can verify operations dealing with ballot papers which are visible and tangible objects. The Italian electoral procedures are a good example since no one has questioned the legitimacy of the electoral result in the last 60 years.

Electronic elections cannot be held under public monitoring because computer procedures are not verifiable by humans since we are not equipped for verifying operations which occur on the microscopic scale within nanosecond timeframes. In fact, for people who didn't program them, computers act just like black boxes and their operations can truly be verified only by knowing the input and comparing the expected output with the actual output. Unfortunately, because of vote secrecy, elections have no known input nor any expected output with which to compare electoral results, thus electronic electoral results can't be verified by humans.

That's why some people [1] think electronic voting is by its nature open to a wide range of undetectable frauds.


History is full of notorious examples of electoral fraud, especially (and ironically) in advanced democracies where such crimes tend to be noticed, reported, and corrected. Examples include the Daley Machine in 20th century Chicago and Tammany Hall in 19th century New York. Although the penalties for getting caught may be severe, the rewards for succeeding are likely to be immense, encouraging perpetrators to continue their fraudulence. Also, in recent times, accusations of voter suppression are often made to counter those alleging election fraud.

Communists seized power in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia from nominally-democratic governments between 1946 and 1948 with the aid of electoral fraud and maintained formal power through rigged elections.

Countering Fraud

In countries with strong laws and effective legal systems, lawsuits can be brought against those who have allegedly committed fraud. In countries with high rates of corruption and in countries new to democracy, international observers may be brought in to observe the elections. Unfortunately they have little to observe when elections are electronic.

See also


"Those who cast the votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything." -- Joseph Stalin (possibly apocryphal -- About.com's Urban Legends and Folklore Mailbag 12/18/00)
"I can make them voting machines sing 'Home Sweet Home'." -- Earl K. Long

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