'Winning fair and square': four ways to inventively tamper with elections

The first duty of a man is to think for himself”, said Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí. This maxim undoubtedly reflects what could be considered as the linchpin of functional democracy: the informed judgment of citizens. In effect, the utmost pillar of the democratic process is the existence of a choice, whereby voters undertake an evaluation of candidates and form an opinion. This choice is itself underpinned by a combination of personal beliefs and external factors, such as familial and environmental determinants (gender, religion, age and socio-economic status), the candidates’ media portrayal, campaign spending, etc. (Harrop and Miller 1987).

However, a quick glance at today’s world is sufficient to recognise the gangrenous disease that consumes the political establishment – avarice and power hunger. These vices manifest their immediate symptoms in the ruling class, who often refuse to let go of their authority and reject the will of the majority. Despots conveniently transform public duty into public disservice, and overlook the common interest for their own monetary gain, often at an unimaginable cost.

It is true that a full account of the electorate’s judgment cannot ever be created. It would be impossible, even with the highest standards of electoral observation and verification procedure, to report results to an impeccable, infallible level. Inaccuracies in elections are inevitable, much due to counting errors – both by hand or by technological tools. Tampering with an election, however, takes further advantage of this layer of ambiguity for a flagrantly malicious purpose. Election rigging is defined as “an illegitimate and undemocratic means of tilting the playing field clearly in the favour of one party or candidate at the expense of others” (Cheeseman and Klaas 2018, 6). It can be achieved through a number of means, and is capable of being broken down into different categories such as gerrymandering, vote buying, ballot manipulation, cyberattacks and others.

Election rigging concerns more specifically “counterfeit democracies”, a term coined by Cheeseman and Klaas (2018) in their blue-ribbon book How to Rig an Election, to describe authoritarian states where political rights are constrained, as well as states where elections are indeed contested, but the opposition would compete with major disadvantages. In those states, the incumbent regime survival rate stands at 80% (Roessler and Howard 2009), suggesting that such systems persistently prevail in elections despite their unpopularity. In fact, based on this figure, the average tenure for a dominantly authoritarian regime is no less than four terms, and is usually followed by a coup d’état and/or succeeded by another totalitarian regime.

Authoritarian and partly-democratic regimes hence use rigged elections to create “institutional façades of democracy”, (Schedler 2006) aiming to conceal their office-seeking, opportunistic aims. So long as those autocrats can pull the strings of the political game, they preserve better chances at remaining in power rather than if they dismiss the holding of elections altogether — this is because partially-authoritarian institutions are still allowed to receive financial assistance, form global military and diplomatic alliances and confirm their membership in international organisations (Cheeseman and Klaas 2018).

Thanks to this unfortunate vicious cycle, defective democracies now resort to creative election rigging procedures, pushing the electorate to ultimately abandon their faith in the legitimacy of democratic processes. Effectively, authoritarian governments have proved to be skilled in always finding innovative ways to rig and “win” electoral races despite their unpopularity (Cheeseman and Klaas 2018). I will present, in the following, four tried-and-tested inventive ways autocrats have utilised to rig elections, or the system as a whole, in various parts of the world.

Introducing on the ballot a candidate who bears the same name as the opponent, or at least the same initials.

This strategy was utilised in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election, to bar opposition figure and former political prisoner Yulia Tymoshenko from acceding to the second round of the vote. To confuse voters and split the electorate, an unknown pro-Russian party paid the $92,000 registration fee for Yuriy Tymoshenko, a nearly-unknown independent deputy in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s unicameral legislature, to run for the presidency. Not only does Yuriy share Yulia Tymoshenko’s last name, but they also bear the same middle name. As per Ukrainian custom, only the candidates’ initials are present on the ballot. Disoriented voters who intended to vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, were surprised to see two simultaneous “Y.V. Tymoshenko'' boxes on the ballot and ticked whichever. As a result, Yuriy Tymoshenko won more than 110,000 votes, causing consternation and shock in the country.

Using disappearing ink to transform valid ballots into blank ballots

Also in Ukraine, it has been understood that, in the 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Russia supporters distributed pens filled with disappearing ink to Viktor Yukshchenko’s Europhilic supporters. In effect, as the issue was only discovered at counting stage, this measure succeeded in erasing a number of their votes, for the ballot boxes ended up stacked with unmarked tickets (Charter 2004, Cheeseman and Klaas 2018). According to leaked NATO documents, such violations happened again on both sides of the campaign in 2010, yet the vast majority of the “rigged” ballots was validated as volunteers attempted to discern electors’ intent by superposing the papers to lighting.

Creating fake political parties which “oppose” the ruler’s agenda

Paul Biya has been the President of Cameroon since 1982, and is the longest-ruling head of state in the world, monarchs notwithstanding. To strengthen his power grab, Biya created, as of 2011, no less than 253 political parties “opposing” his tenure (Pigeaud 2011). This tactic, inspired by President Seko of the DR Congo in the nineties, aimed to scatter the votes of his opponents who confront, until this day, measures of oppression, intimidation and violence (Moki 2020). To counter any claims of electoral violations, the government of Cameroon additionally employs “zombie observers” who impersonate organisations such as Transparency International and provide false positive reviews of the electoral process locally and abroad (O’Donnell and Gramer 2018).

Establishing a position for life

In Kazakhstan, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned in 2019, after renaming the capital city after himself. To remain in power, he retained his position as the Chairman of the Security Council, whose decisions are “mandatory and are subject to strict execution by state bodies, organisations and officials” of the Central Asian republic (Seisembayeva 2018). In conjunction, Nazarbayev amended the Constitution to hold this position for life, and appointed his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to “win” a controversial snap election with more than 71% of the vote.

Of course, traditional – and normally perfectly lawful – manners of electoral meddling still occur widely today. For example, in the United States, gerrymandering is expected to transpire in the latest redistricting cycle, following the 2020 general census. Innumerable accusations of ballot stuffing, misinformation campaigns and hackings of electronic voting machines have been sparked on all continents, from Kenya to Brazil and the Philippines (Cheeseman and Klaas 2018).

Undeniably then, the state of democracy on a global scale has deteriorated in the past years. The decline of democracy did not start with COVID-19; its roots flow back to the economic crisis of 2008, which disseminated both a sense of insecurity amongst your average citizen, and an opportunity for rapacious leaders to clutch their authority with more vigour. The ranking of countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Burundi on the Democracy Index, a reliable indicator of the regime status in each state, have plummeted between 2019 and 2020 – as did those of Iraq and Cameroon amongst others (Economist Intelligence Unit 2020). Quite shockingly, the states of France, Portugal and USA are now classified as “flawed democracies” amidst claims of election meddling, foreign interference and uncountable corruption scandals.

Conversely, the past two decades have seen the most pro-democracy protests since the 1960s, with communities all over the planet calling for freedom of speech, institutional accountability and transparency in the civic process. It seems, however, that the awakening of the youth from all sides of the political spectrum, in the face of the remnant Silent Generation kids and the Baby Boomers, has not altered the failure such movements encounter. The emergence and spread of COVID-19 did not facilitate the task of democracy stalwarts. Rather, it constituted a window for totalitarian leaders to exploit lockdown measures and silence protesters in Lebanon, Belarus and Greece for instance, where the latest upsurge in politically-motivated violence is worrying.

Election rigging has recently become increasingly blatant. Despots are not afraid to have their actions scrutinised by the public anymore, as Trump proved in his phone call with Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he asked the latter to “find” the necessary votes to flip the 2020 presidential election. It is important to remember, on a final note, that electoral authoritarianism is difficult to prevent, and even harder to report. What Nietzsche feared as a domination of the elite over the population is manifesting maybe because of the quest for democracy itself. His claim that pluralism can defeat the red flags of democracy in excluding difference convinces, by proning the avoidance of a single source of decision-making, in turn inhibiting totalitarianism at heart. The only road to defeating it is perhaps securing broad representation on electoral commissions and implementing a sort of mandatory monitoring for most national-level elections at least, to be able to challenge the foes of democracy efficiently.


Charter D. (2004) “Votes in invisible ink just vanish in ballot”, The Times, 24 November 2004 [online] Accessible at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/votes-in-invisible-ink-just-vanish-in-ballot-7vkg8p2bcp3

Cheeseman N., Klaas B. (2018) How to Rig an Election. Yale University Press: London.

Economist Intelligence Unit (2020) “Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health?”

Miller W. L., Harrop M. (1987) Elections and Voters: A comparative introduction. Macmillan Education UK: London.

Moki E. K. (2020) “Violence, intimidation threaten Cameroon’s legislative vote”, Associated Press, 9 February 2020 [online] Accessible at: https://apnews.com/article/61e288d0314a21c3ec6de910c5d1236d

O’Donnell J., Gramer R. (2018) “Cameroon’s Paul Biya Gives a Master Class in Fake Democracy”, Foreign Policy [online] Accessible at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/22/cameroons-paul-biya-gives-a-master-class-in-fake-democracy/

Pigeaud F. (2011) Au Cameroun de Paul Biya. Editions Karthala: Paris.

Roessler P., Howard M. M. (2009) "Post-Cold War Political Regimes: When Do Elections Matter?" in Staffan Lindberg (ed.), Democratization by Elections: A New Mode of Transition. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Schedler A. (2006) Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. Lynne Rienner Publishers: Boulder.

Seisembayeva A. (2018) “Kazakh President given right to head National Security Council for life”, The Astana Times, 13 July 2018 [online] Accessible at: https://astanatimes.com/2018/07/kazakh-president-given-right-to-head-national-security-council-for-life/