Watch out for vote rigging

ANTHONY BUTLER: With vote riggers on tap, complacency is not an option

First published in BusinessLive

17 FEBRUARY 2023

Many South Africans don’t respond well to the idea that democracy could be under threat. Some get very angry, and insist they will never allow the democracy they fought for to die. More often they adopt the predator-avoidance strategy falsely attributed to ostriches, by burying their heads in the sand.

However, as political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas remind us in their grimly entertaining 2017 book How to Rig an Election, we are faced with a global phenomenon: “An increasing number of authoritarian leaders are contesting multiparty elections, but are unwilling to put their fate in the hands of voters … more elections are being held, but more elections are also being rigged.”

Cheeseman and Klaas note that our image of rigged elections tends to be lurid: in Madagascar, an opposition leader’s aeroplane is refused the right to land so he simply cannot contest; in Liberia there are 17 times more votes than voters; in Pakistan the most prominent opposition leader is killed; and in Equatorial Guinea “an election official [was] forced to sign off on an official result while a pistol was held to his head”.

Such crude interventions are in reality the last resort of power-hungry incumbents — it is far better to sew up the result subtly, and far in advance.

Some democratic vulnerabilities these authors analyse will be uncomfortably familiar to South Africans. Unnecessary hurdles to voter registration can selectively discriminate against anti-incumbent electors in growing urban areas. Vote buying can be widespread, with electors photographing their ballots to prove which way they have voted. Politicians may dole out public funds and development projects immediately in advance of elections — only to communities that have shown “loyalty” to the party of government.

Unaccountable electoral commissions can become dominated by incumbent appointees and selectively enforce the rules to the disadvantage of opposition parties. There may be limited access to politically compromised private media, and opaque governance in influential public broadcasters.

Equally importantly, there are new challenges related to technological change. Politicians’ personal data can be hacked to provide a basis for smear campaigns. Rapid-response bot armies can shape political narratives and spread manufactured disinformation. In many countries electoral infrastructure is vulnerable to the manipulation of voters’ rolls, voting machines and vote tabulation.

Such manipulations often make ballot box stuffing redundant. However, if it is needed, supposedly independent electoral commissions can be compromised and their members intimidated, making possible multiple and fake votes, and tampered counting processes.

Such threats to the integrity of elections can be countered by closely interrogating electoral commissions, reminding citizens that their ballot is secret, and using social media to increase awareness of vote-rigging techniques. Parallel voter surveys can be used to double-check election tallies.

Newly competitive electoral conditions in SA mean the incentives to rig elections are growing. Myriad unexploited opportunities already exist to obstruct free political activity, stifle editorial independence and curtail political freedoms. New technologies — and malign international consultancies happy to help rig elections — are on tap.

Meanwhile, the ANC has been allowed to get away with its claim that constitutional democracy is subordinate to its incoherent and anachronistic “national democratic revolution”. In recent years it has more consistently sought to normalise Chinese and Russian autocracy.

It is true that the ANC also hosts great defenders of democracy. However, an informal coalition between the ANC and the EFF under a new ANC president may be just around the corner. This would represent a betrayal of electors’ intentions and could make election-rigging a requirement for political survival.

Those who think our emerging political elites would baulk at such a strategy have perhaps not been paying sufficient attention. The biggest threat to democracy in SA is complacency.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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