My research interests focus on the politics of non-democratic regimes, with a particular focus on elections in authoritarian and partially democratic countries.  My dissertation investigates principal-agent problems that may arise between political leaders seeking to manipulate elections, and the low-level agents who must actually carry out the tasks necessary to change the results. It address two interrelated questions: Why are some elections manipulated more severely than others, and why do the tactics used to tamper with elections vary both geographically and over time?

Two other projects expand on my interest in electoral manipulation and authoritarian politics. In the first, I study the relationship between authoritarian courts and election integrity. In the second, larger project, I work to better understand the effects of manipulated elections on post-election protest. As part of this latter project, I have conducted survey-experimental work on how the form and severity of election-manipulation efforts affect social-psychological predictors of participation in collective action (such as feelings of anger and efficacy).

Please see below for abstracts and drafts of these projects.

Book project

  • The Machinery of Manipulation: A comparative analysis of principal-agent relationships and electoral manipulation in Russia, Ukraine, and Mexico

[expand title=”Abstract”]Most modern authoritarian regimes hold elections, which are frequently manipulated. However, the severity of electoral manipulation efforts varies over time and across space. Existing theories fail to fully explain this variation. This project, an expanded version of my dissertation work, addresses this puzzle by emphasizing the role of the low-level agents who actually carry out the work of electoral manipulation. I argue that agents’ incentives are shaped by three factors: the consolidation of patronage resources by the agent’s patron, the local political risks of punishment for the agent, and the type of manipulation the agent engages in. Principal-agent problems are most severe when patronage is unconsolidated and local conditions are risky. When patronage is consolidated, agents are more likely to engage in manipulation, but shift their tactics depending on local risks. When risks are high, agents engage in harder-to-track forms of manipulation like vote-buying; when risks are low, agents are willing to engage in easily traceable techniques like falsification of results. These hypotheses are tested by studying election results over time in three countries—Russia, Ukraine, and Mexico—using statistical analysis of election results, interview data, and a survey experiment.[/expand]

Sample chapter

Peer-reviewed publications

Russia's ruling party margin of victory and estimates of voter pressure
Russia’s ruling party margin of victory and estimates of voter pressure

Vote-buying and voter intimidation are costly, complicated, and risky ways to manage elections. Why, then, do hybrid regimes utilize such tactics rather than ballot stuffing or election falsification?  Such methods to mobilize voters require the construction of patronage networks that can be used to mobilize or demobilize clients beyond the election, and to display the incumbent’s organizational strength. These networks are most valuable in places where opposition groups are active; consequently direct voter pressure should be more common in competitive areas. This paper uses data from Russia’s 83 regions during the 2011 election to compare patterns of extra-legal mobilization with patterns of ballot stuffing and falsification. I conclude that local political competitiveness structures the mix of electoral manipulation tactics employed.

Transitional justice aims to promote democratization, but its effects in previous research are mixed. This article addresses this puzzle by focusing on one element of democratization: clean elections. It argues that post-transition trials limit illegal forms of electoral manipulation, whereas lustration policies limit legal manipulation tactics. This article tests for the effects of four transitional justice mechanisms —truth commissions, lustration policies, amnesties, and trials— on legal and illegal electoral manipulation, using data from 187 post-transition elections around the world from 1980-2004. The findings suggest that amnesties and truth commissions do not improve election quality, whereas trials and lustration do.

Popular protest is one of the few checks that citizens and opposition parties have against election fraud in repressive regimes, but why are some fraudulent elections met with popular protest while others are not? Using data from elections in 108 countries from 1980 to 2004, we show that the regime’s choice of election manipulation tactics affects the likelihood of post-election protest. Leaders signal their strength and resources by manipulating elections, but some manipulation tactics send stronger signals than others. We find that opposition groups are less likely to protest when they observe extra-legal voter mobilization (a costly manipulation tactic) than when less-costly administrative fraud is employed.  When both are employed, extra-legal mobilization reduces the risk of protest relative to administrative fraud alone.   This study demonstrates the importance of accounting for the choice of electoral manipulation tactics when analyzing post-election protests. It also contributes to the literature on election manipulation by analyzing variation in the degree of regime strength communicated by different manipulation tactics.

This paper presents a condensed version of the theory articulated in my dissertation, along with data from Russia. Successful electoral manipulation requires the cooperation of large numbers of agents—the people who bribe voters, stuff ballot boxes, and more. However, election manipulation is illegal even in countries where it is commonly practiced; agents thus risk political or criminal penalties if they lose the protection of their principal.  This paper sets out a principal-agent theory of election manipulation, which argues that agents will be less willing to take this risk when competitiveness is high at either the local or national levels.  The theory is tested using a subnational comparison of election results from more than eighty regions of Russia over six elections from 2003 to 2012.  Precinct-level election results are analyzed using an established election forensic technique in order to estimate the level of manipulation by region. These estimates are used as the dependent variable in second-stage models, which show that manipulation responds to changes in competitiveness as predicted.

imputed mobilization
Predicting post-election protest using types of electoral manipulation (multiple imputed datasets)

Working papers

Theories of electoral manipulation often posit negative public reaction as one of the few guardrails that can prevent manipulation efforts by governments and parties; however, protests against manipulated elections are relatively rare, while manipulation is common. This raises a puzzle: why is opposition protest failing to prevent electoral manipulation as predicted in much of the existing literature? This project draws on insights from political science, sociology, and psychology to address this question. In particular, it investigates how electoral manipulation affects two predictors of individual participation in collective action identified in social psychology: the salience of group identity and feelings of anger. In this preliminary study, survey-experimental evidence shows that state-based electoral manipulation appears to dampen feelings of identity with the aggrieved group, while four types and two levels of manipulation appear to result in similar levels of anger.

The severity of electoral manipulation varies both across cases and within cases over time. Several competing theories have been proposed to explain this variation; most recently, principal-agent models claim that low-level agents tasked with illegally influencing election results will be less willing to do so in local areas that are more competitive than average. However, similar empirical patterns have been explained without reference to agents by research on election monitoring: leaders shift electoral manipulation out of competitive, monitored districts and into areas where manipulation will be less easily observed. These two theories are difficult to distinguish empirically. As a first step, this paper investigates the incentive structure faced by agents and principals, by using survey-experimental data from Russia to test public opinion on punishment of agents and protest in response to electoral manipulation. It finds that public opinion is generally supportive of punishing agents, especially among more opposition-minded respondents. At the same time, it does not appear that respondents support protest in response to manipulation. This is taken as evidence in support of the principal-agent model of manipulation.

  • Strategic defection or strategic pressure? Judicial independence, competition, and variation in electoral manipulation tactics (Manuscript in progress)

Two alternative theories of judicial independence may explain how courts in authoritarian contexts can influence electoral integrity. Strategic defection theory holds that even de facto independent courts will rule in favor of the government on major issues (such as the integrity of national elections) until increasing competition makes the ruling party’s grip on power look uncertain. Strategic pressure theory contends that when political competition increases ruling parties will invest more in controlling courts, resulting in more pro-government rulings. This project uses cross-national data on judicial independence and multiple measures of election integrity to show that neither theory is fully supported. Instead, judicial independence appears to improve election integrity regardless of the level of competition. This suggests that authoritarian governments are caught in a dilemma, reducing their freedom of action in elections in order to reap the other benefits of a more independent judiciary. These hypotheses are tested using data on 551 elections in 99 countries from 1980 to 2004.

Independent courts have long been thought to be beneficial for democratization. A recent article argues that one way courts accomplish this by deterring electoral manipulation, by sending signals that can inform decision-making by opposition parties considering post-election protest (Chernykh and Svolik 2015). However, the authors do not test their formal model empirically, and do not distinguish between high and low courts. This paper addresses this question, improving our understanding of the limits on courts’ ability to improve the legitimacy of elections. It shows that independent lower courts are associated with reduced illegal manipulation across all levels of political contestation. However, independent high courts do not improve legal or illegal electoral manipulation when political competition is low. Instead, strategic behavior by high-court justices means that high-court independence is associated with improvements in electoral integrity only when competition is elevated.

Monuments are traditionally understood as tools of communicating information about society and politics downward, from elites to citizens. They are seen as instruments for the state to tell an official narrative of its history or to promote the national identity. We posit that monuments may also serve another purpose for the elite: they can be costly signals that the elite may employ in order to signal political information among themselves or to their superiors. Monuments may incur considerable political costs, for some of the elite because publicly advocating for a narrative may hinder their ambitions for changing allegiances if it requires repudiating that narrative. We present a signaling game in which an agent may use costly signals to show loyalty to a leader who is uncertain of the agents’ preferences. We focus on two signals: loyalty-signaling monuments and electoral signals. Our theory predicts that loyalty-signaling monuments should be more likely to occur as the national political environment becomes more consolidated and in places where an electoral loyalty signal is less feasible. We rely on data from the Post-Communist Monuments Project to test the predictions of our formal model in post-Soviet Russia and find empirical support for both of these predictions.