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Noncompetitve Elections and Information: A Theoretical Perspective on the 2011 Russian Elections

- December 9, 2011

Finally (at least for today), we present the following response to the Russian parliamentary elections from Andrew Little, a Ph.D. candidate at NYU who is writing a dissertation on noncompetitive elections. In response to my queries, Andrew offered the following six points in response to the 2011 Russian elections:

1. Noncompetitive elections–those where the ultimate winner is not in doubt–matter. In one of my papers, I argue the main reasons they matter is because of the information they generate. Even if United Russia was never in danger of losing control of the Duma, the results last week seem to have drastically changed beliefs about the strength of Putin/United Russia and how long the regime will last. These elections are not window dressing or a facade to confer legitimacy–by what definition of legitimacy could anyone possibly be convinced by these elections that Putin’s rule is legitimate?–but are meaningful political events because they generate public information about the strength and popularity of the incumbent and opposition groups.

Most of the analysis of this election has not been about the implications of United Russia no longer having a supermajority in the Duma, but about the information generated by the lower-than expected result. I think this is the proper thing to focus on in Russian elections and in other noncompetitive elections.

2. Fraud is not necessarily about winning elections, but is often an attempt to manipulate the information generated by elections. While this election got pretty close, United Russia consistently has cheated in elections that were not close. In fact, fraud is rarely pivotal in determining the winner of elections and there is more fraud in elections that are not close (See the work of Alberto Simpser ). Joseph Kennedy may have claimed to be “willing to buy as many votes as necessary to win, but he was damned if he would buy a single extra one,” but this sentiment is inconsistent with the empirical record on fraud.

3. Even if fraud is about distorting information, it may not fool anyone. Much that is written about fraud conjures images of powerful dictators manipulating passive citizens and outside observers into seeming invincible, but these observers are clearly well aware that fraud is going on. A great quote along these lines comes from Sergei Kovalev, a Russian Democracy advocate: “You lie, your listeners knows this and you know that they don’t believe you … Everybody knows everything. The very lie no longer aspires to deceive anyone, from being a means of fooling people it has for some reason turned into an everyday way of life, a customary and obligatory rule for living.”

4. So why does fraud happen? In a working paper I argue that since fraud is a (partially) hidden action, incumbent leaders can’t “commit” to hold completely honest elections. Observers know this and as a result will always infer there is going to be fraud, so incumbents not committing fraud would seem weaker than they really are. In game-theoretic terms, fraud doesn’t fool anyone in equilibrium, but since committing more or less than expected can fool people it still occurs.

5. It may seem odd given the cheating we observed that United Russia allowed international monitors like those from the OSCE, surely knowing that their report would at least be somewhat negative. However, imagine what would have happened if United Russia banned all international monitors. I suspect that citizens, opposition groups, and the international community would have just assumed that there was even more cheating, and the end result of the election demonstrating the unpopularity of the regime would have been unchanged. That is, the official result may have changed, but not the information conveyed by the result.

6. Protests over fraud may be less about fraud than the fact that the election result revealed the weakness of the regime. Most of the protests seem centered around the regime cheating, but the regime has been cheating for a long time. What has changed is that they did less well in the election, signaling weakness and potentially lowering the costs or increasing the benefits to protest. So the fact that protesters think fraud was committed matters, but only in the sense that it means for a fixed reported election result, increasing beliefs about how much fraud was committed makes observers thing the regime was weaker or less popular.