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Electoral fraud is illegal interference with the process of an election. Acts of fraud affect vote counts to bring about a election result, whether by increasing the vote share of the favored candidate, depressing the vote share of the rival candidates or both. Also called voter fraud, the mechanisms involved include illegal voter registration, intimidation at polls and improper vote counting. What electoral fraud is under law varies from country to country. Many kinds of voter fraud are outlawed in electoral legislation but others are in violation of general laws such as those banning assault, harassment or libel. Although technically the term 'electoral fraud' covers only those acts which are illegal, the term is sometimes used to describe acts which although legal, are considered to be morally unacceptable, outside the spirit of electoral laws or in violation of the principles of democracy. Show elections, in which only one candidate can win, are sometimes considered to be electoral fraud although they may comply with the law.

In national elections, successful electoral fraud can have the effect of a coup d'état or corruption of democracy. In a narrow election a small amount of fraud may be enough to change the result. If the result is not affected, fraud can still have a damaging effect if not punished, as it can reduce voters' confidence in democracy. Even the perception of fraud can be damaging as it makes people less inclined to accept election results. This can lead to the breakdown of democracy and the establishment of a dictatorship.

Electoral fraud is not limited to political polls and can happen in any election where the potential gain is worth the risk for the cheater; as in elections for labor union officials, student councils, sports judging, and the awarding of merit to books, films, music or television programmes.

Despite many instances of electoral fraud, it remains a difficult phenomenon to study. This follows from its inherent illegality. Harsh penalties aimed at deterring electoral fraud make it likely that individuals who perpetrate fraud do so with the expectation that it either will not be discovered or will be excused.


Electoral fraud can occur at any stage in the democratic process, but most commonly occurs during election campaigns, voter registration or during vote-counting. The two main types of electoral fraud are preventing eligible voters from casting their vote freely (or voting at all); and altering the results. A list of threats to voting systems, or electoral fraud methods, is kept by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Electorate manipulation

Most electoral fraud takes place during or immediately after election campaigns, by interfering with the voting process or the counting of votes. However it can also occur far in advance, by altering the composition of the electorate. In many cases this is not illegal and thus technically not electoral fraud, although it is sometimes considered to be a violation of principles of democracy.


Gerrymandering is the drawing of electorate boundaries in order to produce a particular result. Typically, electorates will be organised so that one group of people (for example poor people or a particular ethnic or religious group) is concentrated into a small number of electorates. This means that parties favoured by that group will win by a large majority in those electorates, but lose more narrowly in a larger number of electorates. This may result in one party gaining the most votes overall but still losing the election. Gerrymandering is most common under plurality voting systems, in which the winner must win the most electorates rather than the most votes overall.

In many cases gerrymandering occurs within, or is the result of, electoral law. However it may sometimes take the form of true electoral fraud, for example if laws governing the drawing of electoral boundaries are broken, or officials are bribed or otherwise coerced into altering boundaries in a way which favours a particular group.

Manipulation of demography

In many cases it is possible for authorities to artificially control the composition of an electorate in order to produce a foregone result. One way of doing this is to move a large number of voters into the electorate prior to an election, for example by temporarily assigning them land or lodging them in flophouses. Many countries prevent this with rules stipulating that a voter must have lived in an electorate for a minimum period (for example, six months) in order to be eligible to vote there. However, such laws can themselves be used for demographic manipulation as they tend to disenfranchise those with no fixed address, such as the homeless, travellers, Roma, students (studying full time away from home) and some casual workers.

Another strategy is to permanently move people into an electorate, usually through public housing. If people eligible for public housing are likely to vote for a particular party, then they can either be concentrated into one electorate, thus making their votes count for less, or moved into marginal electorates, where they may tip the balance towards their preferred party. One notable example of this occurred in the City of Westminstermarker under Shirley Porter. In this case the electoral fraud relied on gaming the United Kingdommarker's first past the post electoral system, as in such a system it does not matter how much a party wins or loses by. The fraudsters calculated which wards they had no hope of winning, which they were sure of winning and which wards were marginal. By manipulating Westminister Council's public housing stock the fraudsters were able to move voters more likely to vote for their electoral enemies from marginal wards to the wards that they were going to lose anyway. In the ensuing elections the opposition could only win their safe seats with the small Conservative leads in the marginal wards being enough for them to win these wards, and therefore maintain their majority position and control of the council. In her defence Porter raised the history of the provision of public housing in London and the context of Herbert Morrison's boast to " the Conservatives out of London" by building new public housing in marginal Conservative seats.

Immigration law may also be used to manipulate electoral demography. An example of this happened in Malaysiamarker when immigrants from neighbouring Philippinesmarker and Indonesiamarker were given citizenship together with voting rights in order for a political party to "dominate" the state of Sabahmarker in a controversial process referred to as Project IC.

A method of manipulating primary contests and other elections of party leaders is related to this. People who support one party may temporarily join another party in order to help elect a weak candidate for that party's leadership, in the hope that they will be defeated by the leader of the party that they secretly support.


The composition of an electorate may also be altered by disenfranchising some types of people, rendering them unable to vote. In some cases this may be done at a legislative level, for example by passing a law banning convicted felons, recent immigrants or members of a particular ethnic or religious group from voting, or by instituting a literacy or other test which members of some groups are more likely to fail. Since this is done by lawmakers, it cannot be election fraud, but may subvert the purposes of democracy. This is especially so if members of the disenfranchised group were particularly likely to vote a certain way.

In some cases voters may be invalidly disenfranchised, which is true electoral fraud. For example a legitimate voter may be 'accidentally' removed from the electoral roll, making it difficult or impossible for them to vote. Corrupt election officials may misuse voting regulations such as a literacy test or requirement for proof of identity or address in such a way as to make it difficult or impossible for their targets to cast a vote. If such practices discriminate against a religious or ethnic group, they may so distort the political process that the political order becomes grossly unrepresentative, as in the post-Reconstruction or Jim Crow era until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Groups may also be disenfranchised by rules which make it impractical or impossible for them to cast a vote. For example, requiring people to vote within their electorate may disenfranchise serving military personnel, prison inmates, students, hospital patients or anyone else who cannot return to their homes. Polling can be set for inconvenient days such as midweek or on Holy Days (example: the Sabbath or other holy days of a religious group whose teachings determine that voting is a prohibited on such a day) in order to make voting difficult for those studying or working away from home. Communities may also be effectively disenfranchised if polling places are not provided within reasonable proximity (rural communities are especially vulnerable to this) or situated in areas perceived by some voters as unsafe.

A particular example of this strategy is the Canadian federal election of 1917, where the Union government passed the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. The Military Voters Act permitted any active military personnel to vote by party only and allow that party to decide in which electoral district to place that vote. It also enfranchised women who were directly related or married to an active soldier. These groups were widely assumed to be disproportionately in favour of the Union government, as that party was campaigning in favour of conscription. The Wartime Elections Act, conversely, disenfranchised particular ethnic groups assumed to be disproportionately in favour of the opposition Liberal Party.


Voter intimidation involves putting undue pressure on a voter or group of voters so that they will vote a particular way, or not at all. Absentee and other remote voting can be more open to some forms of intimidation as the voter does not have the protection and privacy of the polling location. Intimidation can take a range of forms.

  • Violence or the threat of violence: In its simplist form, voters from a particular demographic or known to support a particular party or candidate are directly threatened by supporters of another party or candidate or those hired by them. In other cases supporters of a particular party make it known that if a particular village or neighbourhood is found to have voted the 'wrong' way, reprisals will be made against that community. Another method is to make a general threat of violence, for example a bomb threat which has the effect of closing a particular polling place, thus making it difficult for people in that area to vote.

  • Attacks on polling places: Polling places in an area known to support a particular party or candidate may be targeted for vandalism, destruction or threats, thus making it difficult or impossible for people in that area to vote.

  • Legal threats: In this case voters will be made to believe, accurately or otherwise, that they are not legally entitled to vote, or that they are legally obliged to vote a particular way. Voters who are not confident about their entitlement to vote may also be intimidated by real or implied authority figures who suggest that those who vote when they are not entitled to will be imprisoned, deported or otherwise punished. For example in 2004, in Wisconsin and elsewhere voters allegedly received flyers that said, “If you already voted in any election this year, you can’t vote in the Presidential Election”, implying that those who had voted in earlier primary elections were ineligible to vote. Also, “If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything you can’t vote in the Presidential Election.” Finally, “If you violate any of these laws, you can get 10 years in prison and your children will be taken away from you.” Another method, allegedly used in Cook County, Illinoismarker in 2004, is to falsely tell particular people that they are not eligible to vote.

  • Economic threats: In company towns in which one company employs most of the working population, the company may threaten workers with disciplinary action if they do not vote the way their employer dictates. One method of doing this is the 'shoe polish method'. This method entails coating the voting machine's lever or button of the opposing candidate(s) with shoe polish. This method works when an employee of a company that orders him to vote a certain way votes contrary to those orders. After the voter exits the voting booth, a conspirator to the fraud (a precinct captain or other local person in collusion with the employee's management) handshakes the voter. The conspirator then subtly check's the voter's hand for any shoe polish and notes that the voter has left some shoe polish after the handshake. Soon afterward that unfortunate voter gets fired or faces other unpleasant consequences.

Vote buying

Voters may be given money or other rewards for voting in a particular way, or not voting. In Mexico, Queensland and several other places, voters willing to sell their vote are asked to take a picture of their ballot with a cellphone camera to validate their payment. Vote buying may also be done indirectly, for example by paying clergymen to tell their parishioners to vote for a particular party or candidate.


People may distribute false or misleading information in order to affect the outcome of the election. Most commonly, smear campaigns (the circulation of false rumours) are made against a particular candidate or party. Smear campaigns are not necessarily illegal and can therefore not always be considered election fraud. However in some countries smear campaigns may violate libel or slander laws and in others, as the Philippinesmarker, such campaigns are specifically illegal. In 2007 British politician Miranda Grell was convicted under the Representation of the People Act 1983 for making a false statement about another candidate in order to gain electoral advantage.

Another way in which misinformation can be used in voter fraud is to give voters incorrect information about the time or place of polling, thus causing them to miss their chance to vote.

Misleading or confusing ballot papers

Ballot papers may be used to discourage votes for a particular party or candidate, using design or other features which confuse voters into voting for a different candidate. For example, in the United States presidential election, 2000, Florida's butterfly ballot paper was criticised as confusing some voters into giving their vote to the wrong candidate. Poor or misleading design is not usually illegal and therefore not technically election fraud, but can subvert the principles of democracy.

Another method of confusing people into voting for the wrong candidate is to run candidates or create political parties with similar names or symbols as an existing candidate or party. The aim is that enough voters will be misled into voting for the false candidate or party to influence the results. Such tactics may be particularly effective when a large proportion of voters have limited literacy in the language used on the ballot paper. Again, such tactics are usually not illegal but often work against the principles of democracy.

Ballot stuffing

Ballot stuffing occurs when a person casts more votes than they are entitled to. In its simplest form, ballot stuffing literally involves 'stuffing' multiple ballot papers into the ballot box. Another method is for voters to cast votes at multiple booths, on each occasion claiming that it is their only vote. In some countries such as El Salvadormarker, Namibiamarker or Afghanistanmarker voters get a finger marked with election ink to prevent multiple votes. In Afghanistan's elections of 2005, this method failed as the ink used could easily be removed.

A more subtle technique is personation, in which a person pretends to be someone else. The person whose vote is being used may be legitimately enrolled but absent, a real but deceased person, or entirely fictitious.. A particularly unsubtle form of ballot stuffing, known as booth capturing, sometimes occurs in Indiamarker. In these cases a gang of thugs will 'capture' a polling place and cast votes in the names of legitimate voters, who are prevented from voting themselves.

In jurisdictions with absentee balloting, an individual or a campaign may fill in and forge a signature on an absentee ballot intended for a voter in that jurisdiction, thus passing off the ballot as having been filled out by that voter. Such cases of voter fraud have resulted in criminal charges in the past.

Misrecording of votes

Many elections feature multiple opportunties for unscupulous officials or 'helpers' to record an elector's vote differently from their intentions. Voters who require assistance to cast their votes are particularly vulnerable to having their votes stolen in this way. For example a blind person or one who cannot read the language of the ballot paper may be told that they have voted for one party when in fact they have been led to vote for another. This is similar to the misuse of proxy votes, however in this case the voter will be under the impression that they have voted with the assistance of the other person, rather than having the other person voting on their behalf.

Where votes are recorded through electronic or mechanical means, the voting machinery may be altered so that a vote intended for one candidate is recorded for another.

Misuse of proxy votes

Proxy voting is particularly vulnerable to election fraud due to the amount of trust placed in the person who casts the vote. In several countries there have been allegations of retirement home residents being asked to fill out 'absentee voter' forms. When the forms are signed and gathered, they are then secretly rewritten as applications for proxy votes, naming party activists or their friends and relatives as the proxies. These people, unknown to the voter, then cast the vote for the party of their choice. This trick relies on elderly care home residents typically being absent-minded, or suffering from dementia. In the United Kingdommarker, this is known as 'granny farming' and has been restricted in recent years by a change in the law which prevents a single voter acting as a proxy for more than two non-family members therefore requiring more people to be involved in any fraud.

Destruction or invalidation of ballots

One of the simplest methods of electoral fraud is to simply destroy ballots for the 'wrong' candidate or party. This is unusual in functioning democracies as it is difficult to do without attracting attention. However in a very close election it might be possible to destroy a very small number of ballot papers without detection, thereby changing the overall result. Blatant destruction of ballot papers can render an election invalid and force it to be re-run. If a party can improve its vote on the re-run election, it can benefit from such destruction as long as it is not linked to it.

A more subtle, and easily achieved, method is to make it appear that the voter has spoiled their ballot thus rendering it invalid. Typically this would be done by adding an additional mark to the paper, making it appear that the voter has voted for more candidates than they were entitled to. It would be difficult to do this to a large number of papers without detection, but in a close election may prove decisive.

Vote fraud in legislature

Vote fraud can also take place in legislatures. Some of the forms used in national elections can also be used in parliaments, particularly intimidation and vote-buying. Because of the much smaller number of voters, however, election fraud in legislature is qualitatively different in many ways. Fewer people are needed to 'swing' the election, and therefore specific people can be targeted in ways impractical on a larger scale. For example, Adolf Hitler achieved his dictatorial powers due to the Enabling Act of 1933, and achieved the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the Act by arresting members of the opposition. Later, the Reichstag was packed with Nazi party members who voted for the Act's renewal.

In many legislatures, voting is public, in contrast to the secret ballot used in most modern public elections. This may make their elections more vulnerable to some forms of fraud, since a politician can be pressured by others who will know how he or she has voted. However, it may also protect against bribery and blackmail since the public and media will be aware if a politician votes in an unexpected way. Since voters and parties are entitled to pressure politicians to vote a particular way, the line between legitimate and fraudulent pressure is not always clear.

As in public elections, proxy votes are particularly prone to fraud. In some systems, parties may vote on behalf of any member who is not present in parliament. This protects those people from missing out on voting if they are prevented from attending parliament, but also allows their party to prevent them from voting against its wishes. In some legislatures, proxy voting is not allowed, but politicians may rig voting buttons or otherwise illegally cast 'ghost votes' while absent.

Fraud prevention

The two main fraud prevention techniques can, ironically, be summarised as secrecy and openness. The secret ballot prevents many kinds of intimidation and vote selling, while transparency at all other levels of the electoral process prevents most interference.

Secret ballot

The secret ballot, in which the general public does not know how individuals have voted, is a crucial part of free and fair elections. Although it was sometimes practised in ancient Greece and was a part of the French Constitution of 1795, it only became common in the nineteenth century. Secret balloting appears to have been first implemented in the former Australian colony -- now a state -- of Tasmaniamarker on 7 February 1856. By the turn of the century the practice had spread to most Western democracies. Before this it was common for candidates to intimidate or bribe voters, as they always knew who had voted which way.


Most methods of preventing electoral fraud involve making the election process completely transparent to all voters, from nomination of candidates through casting of the votes and tabulation. A key feature in insuring the integrity of any part of the electoral process is a strict chain of custody.

To prevent fraud in central tabulation, there has to be a public list of the results from every single polling place. This is the only way for voters to prove that the results they witnessed in their election office are correctly incorporated into the totals.

End-to-end auditable voting systems provide voters with a receipt to allow them to verify their vote was cast correctly, and an audit mechanism to verify that the results were tabulated correctly and all votes were cast by valid voters. However, the ballot receipt does not permit voters to prove to others how they voted, since this would open the door towards forced voting and blackmail. End-to-end systems include Punchscan and Scantegrity, the latter being an add-on to optical scan systems instead of a replacement.

In many cases, election observers are used to help prevent fraud and assure voters that the election is fair. International observers (bilateral and multilateral) may be invited to observe the elections (examples include election observation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), European Union election observation missions, observation missions of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as international observation organized by NGOs, such as European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), etc.). Some countries also invite foreign observers (i.e. bi-lateral observation, as opposed to multi-lateral observation by international observers).

In addition, national legislations of countries often permit domestic observation. Domestic election observers can be either partisan (i.e. representing interests of one or a group of election contestants) or non-partisant (usually done by civil society groups). Legislations of different countries permit various forms and extents of international and domestic election observation.

Election observation is also prescribed by various international legal instruments. For example, paragraph 8 of the 1990 Copenhagen Document states that "The [OSCE] participating States consider that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place. They therefore invite observers from any other CSCE participating States and any appropriate private institutions and organizations who may wish to do so to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law. They will also endeavour to facilitate similar access for election proceedings held below the national level. Such observers will undertake not to interfere in the electoral proceedings".

Critics note that observers cannot spot certain types of election fraud like targeted voter suppression or manipulated software of voting machines.

Statistical indicators

Various forms of statistics can be indicators for election fraud e.g. exit polls which are very different from the final results. Having reliable exit polls could keep the amount of fraud low to avoid a controversy. Other indicators might be unusual high numbers of invalid ballots, overvoting or undervoting. It has to be kept in mind that most statistics do not reflect the types of election fraud which prevent citizens from voting at all like intimidation or misinformation.

There may, however, be a problem with exit-polls or other verifications methods dependent on the honesty of the voters; for instance, in the Czech Republic (previously part of Czechoslovakia), some voters are afraid or ashamed to admit that they voted for the Communist Party, often claiming to have voted for other party than Communists (exit polls in 2002 gave Communist party 2-3 percentage points lower gain than was the actual case).


In countries with strong laws and effective legal systems, lawsuits can be brought against those who have allegedly committed fraud; but determent with legal prosecution would not be enough. Although the penalties for getting caught may be severe, the rewards for succeeding are likely to be worth the risk. The rewards range from benefits in contracting to total control of a country.

In Germanymarker there are currently calls for reform of these laws because lawsuits can be and are usually prolonged by the newly elected Bundestagmarker

In the United Statesmarker one such case was in Pennsylvaniamarker where Bill Stinson won an election based on fraudulent absentee ballots. The courts ruled that his opponent be seated in the state Senate as a result.

Electoral fraud and electronic voting machines

Elections which use electronic voting machines are prone to fraud in ways that elections using simpler technology are not (although they also prevent some methods of fraud).

Means of electoral fraud through electronic voting machines

Many methods of fraud using voting machines are simply variations on the general methods listed above. Others are specific to this type of technology.
  • Tampering with the software of a voting machine to add malicious code and alter vote totals or favor any candidate. A demonstration how this could be done on a Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems) AccuVote-TS was conducted by the Center for Information Technology Policy, at Princeton University.. Another demonstration with a different voting system was shown on Dutch TV by the group "Wij vertrouwen stemcomputers niet".
  • Tampering with the hardware of the voting machine to alter vote totals or favor any candidate..
  • Intentional misconfiguration of the ballot design to misidentify a candidates party.
  • Abusing the administrative access to the machine by election officials might also allow individuals to vote multiple times.

Means of prevention

One method for verifying voting machine accuracy is Parallel Testing, the process of using an independent set of results compared against the original machine results. Parallel testing can be done prior to or during an election. During an election, one form of parallel testing is the VVPAT. This method is only effective if statistically significant numbers of voters verify that their intended vote matches both the electronic and paper votes.

On election day, a statistically significant number of voting machines can be randomly selected from polling locations and used for testing. This can be used to detect potential fraud or malfunction unless manipulated software would only start to cheat after a certain event like a voter pressing a special key combination (Or a machine might cheat only if someone doesn't perform the combination, which requires more insider access but fewer voters).

Another form of testing is Logic & Accuracy Testing (L&A), pre-election testing of voting machines using test votes to determine if they are functioning correctly.

Another method to insure the integrity of electronic voting machines is independent software verification and certification. Once software is certified, code signing can insure the software certified is identical to that which is used on election day. Some argue certification would be more effective if voting machine software was publicly available or open source.

Certification and testing processes conducted publicly and with oversight from interested parties can promote transparency in the election process. The integrity of those conducting testing can be questioned.

Testing and certification can prevent voting machines from being a black box where voters can not be sure that counting inside is done as intended.

See also


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