Friday, March 21, 2014

The Effects of Partisan Election Administration

Nazar Boyko (Cifra Group) and I are presenting a research paper at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference that investigates how partisan staffing of polling stations affects election outcomes. We focus on the role of technical parties: formally registered parties whose primary purpose is not gaining seats for themselves, but rather assisting their patrons.* Political observers in Eastern Europe and Eurasia have argued that technical parties (and candidates) are ubiquitous and influential, but no research thus far has empirically classified them or evaluated their effects.

Our paper relies on extensive personnel data from Ukraine's 2012 parliamentary elections to identify the most active technical parties, connect technical parties to their patrons, and assess how the assignment of partisan polling station officers influences election outcomes. We find that the presence of technical party-affiliated officers is associated with improved outcomes for the Party of Regions and Batkivshchyna, but that the extent and magnitude of effects is greater for the Party of Regions.

The paper's bottom line is that electoral administration matters, and staffing practices can influence results. Partisan staffing of electoral management bodies, coupled with liberal registration rules permitting large numbers of parties to participate, creates strong incentives for major parties to influence decision-making through affiliated technical parties. The participation and influence of technical parties has the potential to undermine the perception that elections are managed in a free and fair manner.

A draft version of the paper is available for download; comments are welcome.

* Patrons are major parties or candidates contesting in the election who have especially close ties to technical parties.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Exceptional Results in the #Crimea #Referendum

Yesterday on Twitter, I sent an inquiry to the official Crimea Referendum account for information about the publication of referendum data, especially polling station level data. I have searched for the data and have not found it online, and my request was unanswered. I cobbled together a bit of information based on press releases, and have a couple of observations about the course of the elections.

The proportion of reported invalid ballots (0.72%) is low compared to earlier elections in Crimea (for example, earlier elections yielded invalidation rates of 2.9% in 1998, 3.6% in 1999, 3.7% in 2002, 1.5% in 2004, and 1.2% in 2010 for Crimean voters). Voters make mistakes, and they also intentionally invalidate ballots to send messages. While voter education, ballot complexity, and other factors influence the accuracy of ballot casting, it would be interesting to see the distribution of invalid ballots as 0.72% is quite low.

Turnout data also illustrate the exceptional nature of this vote. The figure below shows reported Crimean turnout in elections held from 1998-2014 at various reporting periods throughout the day. The referendum vote (red squares) even exceeds the falsified second round of the 2004 presidential election in turnout at every reporting period. Crimean voters were either incredibly mobilized to participate - far beyond any past election - or the results were artificially inflated.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How "Soviet" is the #Crimea #Referendum?

The Soviet Union, as a general practice, did not call public votes on policy matters. The only exception to this rule was the 1991 vote on preserving the union. If we think of the Crimea referendum as a vote on policy, then it is not a particularly "Soviet" approach to engaging with the public. However, thinking of the vote in these terms is probably faulty.

I reflected extensively on Soviet elections in my 2009 book, Elections and Democracy after Communism?, emphasizing that there is no single approach to elections across Soviet history. The earliest elections (1917-1936) were characterized by substantial variation in practices, in part because the Bolsheviks were in the process of establishing the USSR and also engaged in internal struggles for authority finally resolved with Stalin's consolidation of power. The middle period of elections (1936-1984) fits the stereotype of the Soviet approach, with centralization of procedures and pre-ordained outcomes. The final stage of elections (1985-1991) was competitive but short-lived. Watching today's coverage of the Crimea Referendum reminded me of several passages from Chapter 2:
During most of the Soviet period, elections were analogous to elaborately staged theater. Soviet electoral practices required political actors to find appropriate candidates, ensure voter turnout, manage activities at polling stations, and troubleshoot problems. Moreover, these activities demanded substantial personnel, financial, material, and technical resources. Not only were citizens expected to vote, but millions of citizens served in a formal capacity during local and national campaigns as commission members, voter mobilizers, or candidates. Why would the Soviet Union direct so much effort to an enterprise with preordained outcomes?
…Soviet elections were designed for consumption by internal and external audiences. For the domestic audience, holding elections for local councils (soviets) continued the practices of limited enfranchisement that began in the tsarist period. By controlling suffrage and nomination, the Bolsheviks could eliminate challenges to their rule while offering the people what appeared to be a voice in public affairs. For the international audience, Soviet elections could showcase the state's "democratic" credentials and facilitate propaganda efforts aimed to discredit the democratic credentials of the West. Soviet propagandists asserted that electoral practices in the West, and especially the United States, were dominated by entrenched economic interests, discriminated against minority candidates and voters, and were plagued by bribery and fraud. In Soviet rubric, elections engaged the people directly in governance and were not compromised by the shortcomings commonly found in bourgeois societies.
In addition to legitimization, elections served several additional functions to strengthen the Soviet state. The election process allowed the leadership at the national, regional, and local levels to evaluate the performance of functionaries. The selection of "appropriate" candidates whose record of accomplishments reflected Soviet ideals, success in engaging voters and limiting expressions of dissent, and the overall management of large-scale mobilization conveyed information to higher-level officials who would make decisions about promotion (Carson 1955). While direct elections were not used to select major policymakers, the expansion of contestation rights and the reconfiguration of responsibilities for officials, particularly characteristic of the late Soviet period, could provide political actors access to positions where real policy decisions were made (Roeder 1993). Elections also habituated the population to participation in the Soviet system: casting a vote for a candidate was equivalent to supporting the regime (Gilison 1968; Roeder 1989).
…Turnout in second-era Soviet elections reflected the new emphasis on participation. By 1939, officially reported voter participation was nearly 100 percent, a level it would maintain during this period (Carson 1955; Swearer 1961). Several scholars have challenged the accuracy of official turnout results, suggesting that higher levels of nonparticipation were obscured by various techniques. Soviet officials did not report, nor did Western scholars have access to, reliable data on the number of citizens who did not register to vote, who obtained absentee certificates and did not use them, or the magnitude of data falsification (Zaslavsky and Brym 1978; Roeder 1989). All of these factors could explain the impressive turnout figures in Soviet elections, but coordinated mobilization efforts also encouraged citizens to cast ballots... Voters scheduled to be out-of-town obtained an absentee certificate allowing them to cast their ballots outside of their home precincts (Zaslavsky and Brym 1978). A public campaign praising candidates, and the direct intervention of agitators who visited voters and pressed citizens to come to the polls, also encouraged high levels of participation (Mote 1965; Gilison 1968; Hill 1976; Zaslavsky and Brym 1978).  
As we await the official results, it is important to remember that the referendum is not about citizens expressing preferences on a policy outcome. Rather, it is a theatrical exercise designed to showcase its outcome: "proof" to others that Russians in the near abroad desire reunification with Russia.*

* Even this assertion is potentially problematic for Russian government elites. In a survey conducted a few years after Soviet collapse among Russian speakers in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, Lowell Barrington, Brian Silver, and I showed that Russians in the near abroad overwhelmingly opposed Russian state intervention on their behalf (Barrington, Herron, and Silver 2003). While several years have passed since those surveys were held, it is hard to develop a causal story that would flip ethnic Russian opinions in these regions.

[UPDATE: The relevant figure from our article is below.]

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ballots, Bullets, and the #Crimea Referendum

Next week, Crimea is scheduled to stage a referendum on its status. The vote has been characterized in the Russian press as a ratification* of the decision by the Crimean parliament to separate from Ukraine and join Russia. The organization of this vote is problematic for several reasons.

Ballot Design. Several images of the referendum ballot have been circulating, and all of them consistently show a trilingual sheet with two options.

Notably, the ballot provides two questions for which assent is the only option. The first question is: "Are you for the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?" The second question is: "Are you for the re-establishment of the 1992 Constitution and for the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?" Because voters cannot register a "no" vote for either option, the status quo is not an alternative.

The status quo generally would be an alternative in such a decision. For example, the referendum on South Sudan independence gave voters two options: unity with or separation from Sudan. The former choice was the status quo - remaining a constituent part of Sudan.

South Sudan Referendum Ballot (REUTERS/Albert Gonzalez Farran)
Voters who oppose a change in Crimea's status may only cast blank ballots or deface their ballots. If they cast blank ballots, the votes should be counted as invalid. Blank ballots create opportunities for mischief, permitting polling station officials (or others) to alter the ballots by marking one of the options. Ballots that are defaced would be rendered invalid and not be recorded in the tallies for any option. In short, the ballot is poorly designed if its goal is to assess citizen preferences about Crimea's status, but not if it is designed to permit fraud and "ratify" a preferred outcome.

Conditions on the Ground. Armed occupation is not an optimal circumstance for democratic elections, although many states in conflict have held votes. However, the threat of violence and uncertainty about the what the troops will do during the voting process undermines safety and security, critical elements for a proper election or referendum.

Given that the identities of the armed forces on the ground have not been acknowledged, their participation in the vote is an open question. All of the evidence indicates that many, if not most, of the armed troops are Russian citizens (media reports have noted that vehicles have Russian plates, weapons are military-grade, and so on). The Russian government's insistence that they are not Russian, however, suggests that they will be considered "local citizens" who have the right to vote. The Central Electoral Commission's decision to withhold voter registries, designed to demonstrate that the referendum is not legal, will likely facilitate this fraud as voters will simply be checked in on election day without up-to-date documentation of registered voters.

The Crimean Tatars have called for a boycott of the vote. This position is understandable, especially since the expressed preference of leaders to remain part of Ukraine under current institutional rules is not an option on the ballot. Their boycott should affect turnout, and it will be important to evaluate if participation is demonstrably lower in regions that should have depressed participation.

As I noted in my 2009 book, most referendums in the post-Soviet region have not offered citizens an opportunity to express their preferences on policy matters. I asked: "... how do political elites use referendums? Do referendums provide citizens a meaningful opportunity to directly influence policy decisions? Or, do they present a false choice, with political elites offering questions for public vote only when they are confident in a favorable outcome?" Based on the evidence, I concluded that referendums "...tend to be legitimization tools for the political elite... with questions and processes favoring the ruling elite's preferences." The ruling elite in today's Crimea has made its preferences clear not only through its words, but also by its actions in organizing the upcoming vote.

* When I originally tweeted this RT article, it characterized the vote as "ratifying" the assembly's decision. The current version has scrubbed this term from the article.