For the people’s will to be accurately reflected by the vote, elections must maintain a certain degree of integrity.
Among the greatest challenges to electoral integrity are fraud and malpractice. Until recently neither had been thoroughly defined, making proper identification and strategies for mitigation a significant challenge.
On May 30, IFES hosted a panel featuring an academic, practitioners and legal experts in elections to expand on current definitions of electoral fraud and malpractice. These definitions were introduced and further defined in IFES’ latest white paper on Assessing Electoral Fraud in New Democracies: Refining the Vocabulary.
Moderated by Chad Vickery, IFES regional director for Europe and Asia and a co-author of the white paper, the event featured Marc Elias, partner at Perkins Coie and general counsel to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; Pippa Norris, McGuire lecturer in comparative politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; John Hardin Young, counsel to Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb and adjunct professor at William & Mary Law School; and Almami Cyllah, IFES regional director for Africa.
Vickery opened the discussion with the definitions of fraud and malpractice supported by IFES, classifying electoral fraud as a “deliberate wrongdoing by election officials or other electoral stakeholders, which distorts the individual or collective will of the voters.” Electoral malpractice, on the other hand, is “the breach by an election professional of his or her relevant duty of care, resulting from carelessness or neglect.”
Norris underscored the importance of reaching a consensus on terms used to describe elections and define fraud and malpractice. While election management bodies strive to make elections “free and fair” or “legitimate,” those terms can mean different things to different people. It is not only important to make terms theoretically clear, but they must also be measurable to be effective.
She explained that while legal courts can usually make a distinction between fraud and malpractice, the most difficult cases from an academics’ perspective rest in the grey area between the two.
Elias spoke about the role of poll workers in electoral fraud and/or malpractice. He said most of the issues seen in the U.S. stem from an electoral system run on a mostly volunteer basis and in a highly decentralized manner. With this, there are variations in judgment calls and mistakes made by poll workers. It often falls to the courts to determine whether fraud or malpractice was committed.
Elias spoke about the recount of the 2008 election in Minnesota between Al Franken and incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman. The case raised the question of whether absentee ballots that had previously been disqualified should be counted.
For a reference point on how to deal with issues stemming from judgment calls, Elias then referred to the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore in which it was decided that there can be differences between the way individual poll workers interpret statues, so long as they apply the same judgment to all ballots and all voters.
Young said that when dealing with issues of electoral integrity, it is important to consider the desired remedy. In some cases, the aim of the prosecution is to deter others from engaging in that type of behavior; in others it is to reform electoral law. When looking at violations and determining the remedy, the desired outcome is key. This sort of long-term perspective can help address the issue in a more meaningful way.
To illustrate, he used the example of an individual breaking the law by being involved in another person’s vote. A man entering a voting booth with his mother who cannot see, without filling out the necessary paperwork, is very different from a man ensuring his tenant votes the way he wants him to vote. Both can be considered violations of the electoral code, but need to be treated differently so the remedy improves the process.
Young said having precise definitions of the terms is a move in the right direction.
Cyllah then shed light on the role of governments in electoral fraud and malpractice. He referred to the November 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the 2007 elections in Kenya. In the DRC, the election commission refused to review the voter register even after it was clear it contained major errors. In Kenya, the entire election commission was reappointed months before the election. Not surprisingly, the results of the poll were in favor of the government that appointed the new commission.
Elections in Africa, Cyllah said, are full of examples of ways electoral integrity can be compromised at the most fundamental levels. He said defining fraud, malpractice and the different ways these offenses are committed can highlight the problem and more accurately address it.
IFES has been working on electoral integrity for the past 25 years. These practical definitions of fraud and malpractice are the latest contributions toward elections that accurately portray the choice of the people.
Electoral fraud is arguably the most tangible, obvious threat to the integrity of an election, but the concept is not always well-articulated. It has a colorful, well-documented history, and among contemporary democracies, fraud provides unfortunate common ground that transcends culture, religion and geography.
However, the electoral and academic communities have not reached a consensus about what is meant by the term "electoral fraud" or a related but very different concept: "electoral malpractice." This month, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) published its third white paper in a series on this critical subject.
Join IFES for a conversation about how electoral fraud is defined and how it differs from malpractice. Our speakers will share their field experiences and highlight the impact of fraud and malpractice on recent elections in the United States, Afghanistan, Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Marc Elias, Partner at Perkins Coie and General Counsel to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
Pippa Norris, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
John Hardin Young, Counsel to Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb and Adjunct Professor at William & Mary Law School
Almami Cyllah, IFES Regional Director for Africa
Moderated by Chad Vickery, IFES Regional Director for Europe & Asia.
Learn more about IFES' work on electoral fraud.