Foreign intervention in democratic elections is a hot political topic in the US and the West in general. Allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election have overshadowed the start of 45th president’s first term in office, leading to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. In this new blog series, we will explore the topic of foreign intervention in elections. Here we begin with the latest political science theory behind election interference.

Different nations across the globe use various foreign policy tools at their disposal in order to achieve their global aims. These tools range from diplomacy through negotiations, provision of foreign aid or imposition of economic sanctions, through to outright warfare and other uses of military force. Another means of achieving foreign policy aims is to intervene in another country’s elections in favor of a particular candidate. This can occur when a country’s interests are perceived as being considerably threatened by a foreign candidate or party, and when the country has the opportunity to collude with a local actor in the foreign country who provides information and advice regarding the best way to intervene. This form of foreign policy tool is, however, reserved for those with the means to intervene – the great powers of the day.

Foreign Intervention – The Cold War Powers

A 2016 study by political scientist Don H. Levin notes that between 1946 and 2000, the two great powers – the United States and Russia (or USSR) – intervened in 117 foreign elections. This amounts to approximately one in every nine national elections during the 54 year period.

The methods of intervention employed by the two powers can be broadly placed into two categories: overt and covert. Overt interventions are defined as those in which some of the significant acts of intervention were known to the average voter. Whereas covert interventions are those in which all acts of intervention weren’t known to the average voter.

Examples of overt interventions include:

Public promises or threats. These are made by officials from the intervening state to the foreign electorate prior to the election. Their aim is to dissuade the foreign electorate from voting for the undesirable candidate or option.

Pre-election concessions or benefits. These refer to policy concessions or actions taken by the intervening state which may benefit the foreign state. Such benefits are likely to boost electoral support for the incumbent during an election campaign.

Examples of covert interventions include:

Provision of funds to a preferred candidate. In competitive elections, a larger amount of campaign funds increases the chances of electoral success, all else being equal.

“Dirty tricks”. These involve actively sabotaging the electoral chances of the undesirable candidate or option. Such “dirty tricks” include creating and/or leaking forged documents which seem damaging to a particular candidate. Ultimately the removal of a rival candidate is done creating an atmosphere amongst the electorate where the candidate may no longer continue to campaign. An extreme example would be the outright removal of an undesirable candidate physically.

Effectiveness of Foreign Intervention

But do such foreign election interventions actually work? Or to put it more specifically, do they increase the electoral chances of the desired candidate? Levin concluded that yes, they usually do boost the chances of the favored candidate by increasing their vote share by, on average, 3 percent. In closely contested elections, a swing of 3 percent can be enough to influence the final result.

The study noted that interventions usually work because of the selective way in which interveners and foreign clients “choose” one another. Namely, the fact that interveners aren’t likely to throw their hat in with candidates who are overwhelming underdogs. Moreover, candidates are unlikely to accept foreign support if they believe they can win the election without it. Such a “selection” process means that most foreign election interventions occur in marginal elections – increasing the likelihood of interventions being successful.

Overt vs Covert Interventions

Furthermore, Levin concluded that overt interventions are usually more effective than their covert counterparts. Whilst overt interventions carry the risk of voter backlash in the foreign country, the theory is that the resource advantage enjoyed by the intervening country generally outweighs this risk. This is because voters in the foreign country perceive overt threats to withdraw resources or promise to receive resources from the intervening power as credible. Credible enough to shift their voting behavior in favor of the candidate desired by the intervening country.

On the other hand, whilst covert interventions avoid the risk of voter backlash, the inherent secrecy involved usually leads to an under-provision of electoral aid to the desired candidate. This is due to the clandestine nature of the intervention limiting the possible actions taken by the intervening power. They balance the risk of being “found out” against the risk of a resource under provision. In the end, they generally err towards the latter. This results in the desired candidate having a lower chance of victory in covert operations as compared with overt interventions.

Stay tuned for more blog entries on foreign intervention in the coming weeks. Next up we take a look at the international legal framework surrounding foreign interference in elections.