Journalists, politicians, scholars, and citizens often talk about election interference – for example, the interference of the Russians in the 2016 United States elections – as an aberration. But Dr. Dov H. Levin’s new book Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral Interventions (Oxford UP, 2020) argues that they are a common form of intervention in the modern world, a “tool of great power politics” that are used by both liberal democratic and non-democratic great powers. Although work has been done in diplomatic history and intelligence studies, Levin claims that that electoral interventions have received very little attention from political scientists and he has created the first quantitative, book-length study treating partisan electoral interventions as a “discrete, stand-alone phenomenon.”
Levin (an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong) aims to answer two important and relevant questions. First, when and where does such meddling occur? Second, what effects do meddling attempts have on the targeted election? Are they successful? Using a combination of methodological approaches – including multiple case studies, the creation of an original database, and multiple quantitative analyses -- Levin finds that interventions by great powers have significant impact in the desired direction in most cases when two concurrent conditions exist: the “great power perceives its interests as being greatly endangered by a significant candidate or party within the target” and another significant domestic actor within the country “wants or is willing to” collude with the intervention. Only when both of these conditions are present will partisan elector interventions occur.
Although the book is grounded in the present, Levin encourages readers to understand that recent attempts to meddle in the United States, Kenya, and Moldova are NOT “unprecedented” but rather examples of long-standing political practice. Levin takes the reader back to papal conclaves in the 13th century as well as interventions in Polish elections in the 17th century, American elections in the 18th , and French elections in the 19th century. He underlines how Alexander Hamilton and other leaders at the Constitutional Convention recognized the threat of external meddling and thought the electoral college might help prevent it.
Levin finds that interventions usually increase the electoral chances of the aided candidate, that overt electoral interventions are more effective than overt interventions, electoral interventions are much less likely to effectively help an aided party/candidate competing in a founding election than in a non-founding/later election and will oftentimes harm it, and there is no difference between challengers or incumbents.
Focusing on great powers (rather than all nations attempting to intervene in domestic elections of another nation) allows Levin to be more precise: the dynamics that lead a great power to intervene in other countries elections may differ from those operating in non-great powers; great powers tend to have a surplus of resources and a variety of available policy tools; other countries have limited ability to punish it; and minor powers may be more open to coercion. In addition, the majority of interventions are covert (so it is hard to employ the usual methods of looking at newspaper indexes and databases) and the vast majority of partisan elector interventions are being done by the great powers.
The book provides an overview of the main questions and claims that situates the project in the existing literature to highlight what is unique (chapter 1). Then Levin lays out the assumptions and theoretical arguments on the causes and effects of partisan electoral interventions – concluding by describing the qualitative and quantitative methods that are used to investigate these questions and provide a more detailed definition of the partisan electoral interventions used in this study (chapter 2). Chapters 3-4 focus on six case studies to test the argument about why great powers choose to intervene in partisan elections. Chapter 3 focuses on the US intervening in 3 foreign elections (1953 Germany, 1958 Guatemala, 1946 Argentina) while Chapter 4 provides 3 cases in which the US decided not to intervene (Greece 1967, 1958 Venezuela, 1965 Philippines). Chapter 5 examines US/USSR-Russian interventions from 1946 to 2000 based on his new dataset (PEIG: Partisan Electoral Interventions by the Great Powers). He then test the argument about the effects of electoral interventions using a large-N statistical test of the four main hypotheses (Chapter 6) and an analysis of election studies (Chapter 7). Levin then examines how these arguments might apply to a recent case: Russian electoral intervention in the 2016 elections (Chapter 8). Chapter 9 summarizes the book’s findings on the causes of partisan electoral interventions and their effects on election results before interrogating the wider contributions the study makes to other subfields in IR, American, and comparative politics. Levin concludes “the dangerous possibility of the return, utilizing cybertools, of a pre-modern related form of such interventions – direct meddling in the vote tallies.”
The podcast includes a lively discussion on what recent events in the United States might mean for how democracies operationalize voting.
Susan Liebell is an associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Why Diehard Originalists Aren’t Really Originalists recently appeared in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” was was published in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.