Protecting the ballot from corruption in 19th-century Europe

Political scientist Isabela Mares discusses her book, which examines the incentives that led politicians to pass electoral reforms in first-wave democracies.
Isabela Mares and book cover of How First-Wave Democracies Ended Electoral Corruption

Isabela Mares

Electoral corruption was rampant in the young democracies of 19th-century Europe. To obtain a competitive advantage, politicians would often buy votes and enlist mayors or policemen to mobilize or intimidate voters. Fundamental aspects of modern elections, such as the secret ballot, often didn’t exist in practice.

In a new book, “Protecting the Ballot: How First-Wave Democracies Ended Electoral Corruption” (Princeton University Press), Yale political scientist Isabela Mares examines efforts made between 1850 and 1918 in France, Germany, Britain, and Belgium to end rampant electoral fraud. Her analysis draws on records of parliamentary deliberations and votes, data on politicians’ views and wealth, and information about local economic conditions within political districts, uncovering how legislative majorities supporting electoral reforms developed.

Examining the incentives that moved lawmakers to address electoral malfeasance, Mares found that those motivations varied both across and within political parties. As the book shows, district-level conditions and the attributes of individual politicians — such as their wealth or occupation — were, by themselves, important determinants of demand for electoral reform.

Mares, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to Yale News about voter intimidation and vote buying in 19th-century Europe, and the efforts to clean up elections. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What motivated you to write the book?

Isabela Mares: Believe it or not, the last book on electoral reform in this period was published in 1918 by Yale historian Charles Seymour — the 15th president of the university — and his Yale colleague Donald Paige Frary. It’s titled “How the World Votes: The Story of Democratic Development in Elections” and it’s a great book. But after more than a century, it seemed like a good time to revisit the topic.

Most of the political science literature on democratization seeks to explain democratic reforms almost solely through structural changes, such as changes in landholding inequality, economic development, and other socioeconomic variables. I thought that a political and electoral perspective is needed to understand these electoral reforms. We needed to examine parliaments, unpack the motivations of legislators supporting these reforms, and understand the process by which electoral majorities came about. My research brings in a host of additional political and electoral considerations that explain demand for reform, showing that the elimination of electoral corruption was not simply a byproduct of economic development.

In enacting reforms, did politicians vote against their own interests? After all, the status quo made their election possible.

Mares: This is the paradox of these reforms. Changing the status quo was hard, precisely because many politicians benefitted from it electorally. Politicians who benefitted from a given resource advantage — such as their ability to enlist state resources or private wealth during elections — resisted electoral change. The book shows that the initial political majority opposed to electoral change eroded gradually as a result of splits among elites. Another insight is that the incentives that drove legislators to support reforms differed across the menu of reforms because politicians controlled different types of resources that they could deploy during elections. Some legislators had access to private resources, while others controlled public resources. Politicians had an incentive to support reforms that weakened the political advantage of their opponents but resisted reforms that affected their resource advantage.

What’s an example from the book that illustrates this dynamic?

Mares: Party competition in France from 1872 to 1914 pitted the Republicans, who supported the French Republic, against the Monarchists, who favored reestablishing the monarchy. The Republicans were the power brokers. They controlled access to state resources and could use policemen, local mayors, or prefects during elections to mobilize voters. The Monarchists lacked these advantages, but they had wealth and competed in elections through vote buying and bribing.

Cleaning up elections in this context required limiting the use of private money to buy votes and removing the role of the state during campaigns. Because of their different resource advantages, different parties wanted different outcomes. The Monarchists wanted to maintain their vote-buying advantage but sought to weaken the Republicans’ advantage of using state resources to influence voting. The Republicans wanted to maintain the status quo with respect to their use of state resources but wanted to sanction vote buying.

Why couldn’t the Republicans, who held the majority, preserve the status quo in France?

Mares: They didn’t remain unified. The party split between centrist Republicans and Radicals. Radicals started to differentiate themselves politically from the centrist Republicans and started campaigning on programmatic promises, such as the adoption of an income tax and progressive taxation. Voters began to perceive a disconnect in candidates who supported programmatic goals, like progressive taxation, while also engaging in electoral coercion. As a result, Radicals found it costlier electorally to rely on coercion and preferred to forego such an electoral advantage that came from access to state resources. Programmatic Radicals joined Monarchists and Socialists, supporting a slate of electoral reforms that included ballot secrecy, uniform ballots, and higher sanctions against candidates that used state resources.

It’s important to note that the members of this coalition — Radicals, Socialists, and Monarchists — were competing on different economic issues and held different views about the desirability of the Republican form of government. The coalition favoring the elimination of the use of state resources was, thus, highly heterogenous. What brought these politicians together was the desire to limit the electoral advantage of the Republicans. On other electoral reforms, such as vote-buying, centrist Republicans — who lacked the resources to buy votes — favored reforms, while Monarchists were opposed.

Aside from vote buying and the use of state resources to influence elections, what other corrupt practices did politicians engage in?   

Mares: I examine other forms of malfeasance that were present during voting, such as violations of ballot secrecy. There were no uniform ballots in France and Germany during the 19th century. Candidates designed their own ballots, which made it very easy to detect how people voted. A specific candidate’s ballot could be a certain size or shade, and representatives of that candidates would crowd polling places to observe the ballots used by voters. Often, these representatives were employers, who would impose harsh sanctions on voters who used the “wrong” ballots.

The problem was finally addressed in Germany and France in 1905 and 1914, respectively, by mandating the use of envelopes to conceal people’s ballots and allowing them to cast their ballots in isolated spaces. This was a fundamental change that had major consequences. Following the introduction of ballot envelopes, which eliminated the ability of employers to observe votes, the vote share of the Social Democrats increased dramatically in subsequent elections. By 1912, Social Democrats became the largest party in the parliament. The adoption of ballot envelopes and isolating spaces was a monumental breakthrough that took about 50 years to accomplish in both countries.

What lessons can we draw today from the attempts to curb electoral corruption in these first-wave European democracies?   

Mares: While it’s difficult to draw direct parallels from the 19th century to the present day, I think there are relevant lessons. Both in the 19th century and today, a lot of electoral reforms backfire. This is because they impose very high sanctions on one form of malfeasance and thus create incentives to rely on other irregularities that are sanctioned less harshly. The reforms I examine were successful because they took into account such opportunities for substitution and calibrated the punishments for different forms of electoral malfeasance.

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