Book Review: How to Rig an Election, by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas

Thought I’d repost this book review from 2018 today. No particular reason….

A lot of the power of a successful book is in its ‘big idea’ – the overall frame that endures long after the detailed How to Rig an Election coverarguments have faded in the memory. On that basis, ‘How to Rig an Election’ looks set to do very well indeed.

The authors are both top political scientists (Cheeseman at Birmingham and Klaas at LSE) but also good writers – the prose is crisp and wonderfully free of political science gibberish jargon – who know the value of a great anecdote (no shortage of those on a subject like this).

The starting point is a paradox ‘there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic’. The basis for these claims includes interviews with more than 500 elite figures in 11 countries, backed up by a global data set of all elections held since 1960. Their focus is on goldilocks states – neither pure authoritarian, nor ‘pure democratic’ (if such places exist), but lying on a spectrum from dominant authoritarian (Russia, Rwanda) to competitive authoritarian (Kenya, Ukraine), which together they call ‘counterfeit democracies’ masquerading as the real thing. Before you reach for your decolonisation shotgun, they also include lots of examples from the chequered pasts and presents of countries like the US (Trump) or UK (rotten boroughs).

What they find is that rigging elections is a really good strategy for autocrats – much better than simply doing an Idi Amin and trying to kill everyone who opposes you. Rigging elections ‘typically enables embattled governments to secure access to valuable economic resources like foreign aid, while reinvigorating the ruling party and – in many cases – dividing the opposition…. 30 years ago, the main aim of the average dictator was to avoid holding elections; today it is to avoid losing them.’

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is their identification of a six stage ‘menu of manipulation’: Gerrymandering; vote buying; repression; hacking the election; stuffing the ballot box and finally, playing the international community. A really handy checklist for future observers, whether international or armchair. Each gets a chapter, stuffed with examples.

Here’s how it works:

Gerrymandering made simple
Gerrymandering made simple

‘By gerrymandering electoral boundaries and excluding rival leaders who threaten to gain momentum, incumbents can give themselves a significant head start before the campaign has even begun. This advantage can then be consolidated by manipulating state access to resources to distribute patronage and gifts, outspending opposition parties. At the same time, incumbents may digitally manipulate the media and electoral process.

When these tactics prove to be insufficient, counterfeit democrats have two riskier options: political violence to intimidate opponents or, if that doesn’t work, the last resort for the recalcitrant authoritarian is ballot-box stuffing.

And while counterfeit democrats are busy rigging the election, they are also often running a parallel deception campaign internationally [to] dupe observers or foreign governments into endorsing a rigged election.’

Which leaders go in for election rigging?

‘Leaders are most likely to try and stay in power when they believe that their presence is essential to maintain political stability; in cases when they are less committed to plural politics; when they have engaged in high-level corruption and/or human rights abuses; when they lack trust in rival leaders and political institutions; when they have been in power for a longer period of time; and when they control geostrategically important states with natural resources, effective security forces, weak institutions and high levels of distrust.’

The level of rigging seems to be much higher for presidents than for common and garden politicians: ‘in some African countries roughly 50% of legislators do not win re-election, even in countries where the president never loses’. Competitivity lower down the food chain allows ruling parties to renew themselves, bring in new talent and get rid of the deadwood, while the Big Man stays on the presidential throne.

My overall conclusions from the book?

  • Autocrats have to be really dumb to lose elections, given all the advantages of incumbency. ‘Authoritarians are Stalin on electionsadaptable’ and getting better at rigging, including doing a lot more of it well ahead of election day.
  • This makes fixing it really hard – there’s a balloon effect whereby if you manage to clamp down on one of the six rigging mechanisms (eg by using tech to monitor polling stations), governments can simply shift to one of the others.
  • And it’s getting harder – the rise of both China and Donald Trump is making any interest in procedural democracy look rather old fashioned and irrelevant.

Depressing stuff, the authors do their best to end on a positive, but their ‘what is to be done?’ chapter is unfortunately the least convincing of the book. As one depressed election observer in Zimbabwe told Cheeseman ‘we are always fighting the last election, but the regime is always looking ahead to the next.’ The authors end on a rhetorical note:

‘Autocrats have learned that it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. Right now, those that rig elections are not only outfoxing their own people, but also international observers. Unless we learn to identify these strategies and deter or address them, then election quality will continue to decline. If we care about democracy, we must act now.’

True that, and this book is a great start. We have the diagnosis, and next we need more ideas on who can fix it, and how.

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10 Responses to “Book Review: How to Rig an Election, by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas”
  1. Living in Nicaragua at a time of political conflict this book is extremely relevant. Thanks for the nice review Duncan. The international community have long been impressed by progress in poverty reduction in Nicaragua. The opposition always claimed that Daniel Ortega fixed the elections but we didn’t put much importance on it. ‘Well maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t, but we weren’t experts’. And inequality was declining, and the economy growing. But now suddenly the people are demonstrating and 60 young people have been killed by the government in response. The population are not satisfied with economic growth, they are fed up that they have never cast a valid vote in their lives. This book seems to describe exactly what Ortega has done very successfully for years.

  2. ibrahim hamman degri


  3. This is an important book, that should be referenced more often in today’s fraught social-political landscape. Taking lessons from Zimbabwe and Malawi, it seems the role of the Electoral Commissions is also crucial. In some countries in Africa, the Electoral Commission is impartial, and has been found to not have clean hands nor integrity, in the way it has conducted elections.

  4. How odd to think that you might rig an election through the post office, as Trump is trying to do in America (by slowing ballots and getting them lost) via appointing one of his major contributors to head it up. Or packing the supreme court with judges that might rule on any election case (this is not a new trick, having tame judges rule on cases, e.g. Malawi in Muluzi era). Suppression of votes/voters who will not support the incumbent or ruling party is not new either (though becoming quite blatant in the US) even when, like in Florida, the pop votes to enfranchise people (ex prisoners) and the legislature undoes that. In Texas the Gov-r tried to limit voting by making sure there was only 1 drop-off ballot box per county! and the GOP tried to stop the state counting any ballots dropped off at boxes in one county (set up to keep people safe during Covid). So, America now has lots to teach about how to cheat at elections… where it used to brag it could tell us all how to run a democratic election.

  5. Masood Ul Mulk

    On a lighter note. In Pakistan elections held by the military regime in 1971 are considered the fairest in its history. Sadly, the result precipitated the dismemberment of the country leading to the creation of Bangla Desh. No wonder the country since then is obsessed with having elections with positive results. It is reported that Henry Kissenger commenting on the post election troubles in Pakistan in 1971 remarked to the country’s military ruler. ” For a dictator you held a blood lousy election.” ( please delete this comment wrongly printed in the NGO blog too}

  6. Dr Viru ,Pro Vice Chancellor and Political scientist Bangalore

    This book is very useful to politicians leaders and voters .A very good beginning to check electoral frauds and put democracy

  7. Dr Viru ,Pro Vice Chancellor and Political scientist Bangalore

    This book will educate the political leaders and voters about the methods of rigging of elections. It throws light on constituting various forms of governments by so called democrats and authoritarians by conducting elections.Every voter should read this book and vote to strengthen democracy . I strongly recommend to read.