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Implications of Finding that Webcams Shift Locus of Electoral Fraud

- May 14, 2012

This previous Monkey cage guest post reported on new research from Fredrik Sjoberg suggesting that when Azerbaijani authorities installed webcams in some precincts in a recent election, it likely reduced overt forms of electoral fraud such as ballot stuffing while simultaneously increasing more subtle fraud such as falsification of precinct level results.

This result turns out to overlap very well with a speculation I made here at The Monkey Cage regarding Putin’s incentives for installing webcams in all of Russia’s polling places for the 2012 Russian presidential election. At the time I wrote:

An alternative explanation, however, might be that the Kremlin was seeking to avoid the mechanism by which fraud was revealed following the parliamentary elections, that is the use of individual of cell phones to capture visible fraud in polling places by polling workers who believed they were not being observed. If we assume that the motivation for local level officials to manipulate vote totals (e.g., to win the favor of the Kremlin) had not changed, then the webcams would provide a very powerful incentive for local officials to find other ways of manipulating results than the blatant forms of ballot stuffing that appeared online following the December parliamentary election.

This appears to be exactly what happened in Azerbaijan, which in turn raises the very interesting question of whether the Russians knew what had happened in Azerbaijan when deciding to install the webcams in Russia.

It also raises a very tricky question for anyone advocating for free and fair elections in countries with less than stellar records in this regard. Should webcams in polling stations be embraced as a technology that at the very least decreases one form of electoral fraud? Or perhaps should they be a cause for concern as a technology that is likely to replace a more easily observable (and easier to publicize) form of fraud — ballot stuffing — with one that is more subtle and less observable: the manipulation of precinct level results. Random digit tests are great for academics, but they don’t really compete with YouTube videos of ballot stuffing for convincing citizens of a country that their leaders have cheated. If we want to take this one step further, then we could argue for a variety of reasons (see this post by NYU political scientist Andrew Little here at The Monkey Cage for example) that by making local agents engage in a type of fraud that is less likely to be publicly discovered, webcams could perhaps make leaders more likely to engage in fraud than otherwise.