By Julian Dierkes
I was shocked during election observation on June 26, again, how much of a contrast there is between the diligence and care with which polling stations and voting procedures are run, and the public perception of the legitimacy of voting due to the perception of wide-spread vote buying. Put bluntly, there does not seem much opportunity for large-scale fraud in the polling stations, yet many Mongolians suspect that elections are marred by vote-buying.
Combatting Fraud in Polling Stations
Over the past several rounds of national elections, the General Election Commission has deployed more and more technology to make elections more transparent and tamper-proof. I described some of these measures in my recent post about election observation.
All that does not mean that there is no fraud that is going on in polling stations. But such fraud is inherently difficult due to the scale of personnel needed to carry it off.
This is something that I have not quite understood about allegations of electoral fraud in polling stations.
Let’s assume for a moment that I am a criminally-inclined local campaign manager in an Ulaanbaatar riding. There are a number of ways in which I could seek to influence votes, for example by offering to “assist” elderly voters and having them accompanied to the polling station. Let’s say that I am reasonably successful with some such strategies in winning some votes, perhaps even some that would have gone to another party otherwise.
This is a massively expensive way to cheat! It requires an active cheater per vote won (like someone accompanying an elderly voter) and that cheater is then “burned” for that polling stations as s/he would easily be recognized as offering assistance a second time by the very vigilant party observers. I cannot imagine that anyone would really pursue this as a rational strategy.
The same could be said for the mobile polling (to allow the infirm) to vote which is often mentioned as a possible opportunity for fraud, or even some of the fears around submitting a blank ballot which could then be re-introduced with a mark (though the voting machines would not allow for this as that ballot would already have been counted, so this would only influence a hand count).
So, unless a party has very credible information that the result is so close that even some few votes would sway the result in their direction, it seems to me that it makes no sense to pursue such labour-intensive strategies at election fraud, especially when there are activities connected with intensified campaigning that might actually sway voters to vote a certain way for free.
In previous elections I have been quite frustrated by the oft-repeated allegations of electoral fraud that have never been backed up by real evidence.
Given how many videos of bribery have surfaced in this campaign – credible or not – and given the scale of personnel necessary to conduct electoral fraud of an extent that might actually sway the outcome, it seems odd to me that there is no more evidence of such fraud other than sporadic videos, etc. that we see.
On the other hand, I have become convinced that vote-buying is going on on some scale given how how often party observers talk about the vote-buying strategies of opposing parties in such detail as would only be known to someone who has likely thought about different vote-buying strategies themselves. Yes, not conclusive evidence at all, but I am more persuaded than I used to be that vote-buying and thus massive electoral fraud is happening.
This is especially frustrating to consider given the outcome of the 1st round of voting in the presidential election. As the MPP likely has much more significant resources (personnel and financing) to deploy than the MPRP, if any wide-spread vote-buying was happening, this likely “bought” the 2nd place finish for M Enkhbold over S Ganbaatar. I imagine that many Mongolian voters will see this similarly and will make their choice in the 2nd round with that consideration in mind.
Now, vote-buying. There seem to be so many different ways for how to pay voters in return for their vote. Obviously, this is an area where professionals keep devising ways on how to stay ahead of authorities on the one hand, but also of voters’ likely tendency to want to collect cash offered without actually having it determine their vote.
During this election, some of these schemes revolved around small loans at grocery stores, for example, where locals will surrender their national id card as collateral for small loans. Since the id card is necessary for voting, there are a number of possibilities that arise like paying off someone’s small loan just before the election which will enable them to vote and then expecting them to vote a certain way.
There has been a crack-down on attempts by voters to photograph their ballot before submitting it to offer proof that they’ve voted a certain way. In polling stations there are extensive signs now pointing out that cell phones cannot be brandished and in voting booths themselves there is a small basket provided where voters are meant to place their phone.
To the extent that rumours have specified prices, it seems that some votes were being bought for as little as ₮10,000 or just under €4. That seems like a very cheap price for a vote, but there are obviously many impoverished Mongolian voters for whom this might be a significant enough enticement to surrender their vote or to cast it for a candidate that they might have been leaning toward in any case.
It seems to me that the attempts to secure voting in the polling stations have been just about maxed out. Overall trust in the election will not be instilled with further changes to the polling station layout, technology or other elements. Of course, that is not an argument against fine-tuning procedures further, but it means that some other approach is necessary.
Is It a Problem?
Some might argue, of course, that vote-buying does not really have an impact on the outcome of Mongolian elections as the two large parties are likely to engage in it in equal measure. I find that fairly plausible as there is no obvious reason to believe that one party is more inclined or more able to buy votes than the other party.
However, if vote-buying by the two large parties actually does more or less cancel out, it still prevents smaller parties/candidates from receiving the share of votes that Mongolians might actually like to give them. Ganbaatar in the 1st round might have been an example of this as I have discussed above.
There are examples of other democracies where vote-buying has more or less disappeared despite its early presence. For example, historically vote-buying seems to have been common in the U.S., but does not seem to play a significant role now, despite the many shortcomings of U.S. electoral laws and proceedings otherwise.
Part of the solution to vote-buying is wealth, of course. As incomes rise, the expected rise in “prices” for a vote will also rise, ultimately making it infeasible to purchase votes on any meaningful scale.
The General Election Commission should seek to increase penalties for offering to buy a vote. It should also begin to plan for the parliamentary election in 2020 to roll out some kind of campaign against vote-buying explaining to voters that selling their vote is essentially giving up the right to choose.
Office as an Earnings Opportunity
A broader effort to rid Mongolian politics of money would also be important, of course. First and foremost in such an effort has to be the perception that political office represents an earnings opportunity. As long as officials purchase their office with the expectation to financially recoup this “investment”, there will be a temptation to similarly invest in electoral outcomes.
If this perception of office as an earnings opportunity could be combatted (along with a more serious fight against corruption), some of the loose money in campaigns would also dry up.
In the long run, a change in Mongolia’s political culture toward more substantive debate would also counter-act vote-buying. Currently, voters are choosing to vote largely on the basis of their perception of political leaders and patronage. At that point, might as well sell your vote, as it is unclear to what extent that vote actually choses a particular course of action over another. But if it were clearer to voters what it means to vote for one party or one candidate or another to actually allow them to participate in decisions about future developments of the country, they might be more interested in casting their vote one way or another rather than simply selling it to the highest bidder.