The Confidence Problem

Today’s Washington Post discuses how the fallout from the Mexican election is getting uglier. The paper reports:

Lopez Obrador ignited the smoldering emotions of his followers Saturday morning, alleging for the first time that Mexico’s electoral commission had rigged its computers before the July 2 election to ensure the half-percentage-point victory of Felipe Calderón, a champion of free trade.

Based on this claim, he is planning a strong challenge to the electoral commission.

Lopez Obrador added a new layer of complexity to the crisis by saying he not only would challenge the results in the country’s special elections court but also would attempt to have the election declared illegal by Mexico’s Supreme Court. That strategy presages a constitutional confrontation because according to many legal experts the special elections court is the only body that can hear election challenges.

The goal of this pressure it to get the electoral commission to recount every ballot from every precinct.

Lopez Obrador wants a vote-by-vote count, which would require opening sealed vote packets from more than 130,000 polling stations. Electoral commission officials have sided with Calderon’s strategists, who argue that the law does not allow for the packets to be opened unless tally sheets attached to the packets appear to have been altered. Lopez Obrador said that only 2,600 vote packets were opened Tuesday and Wednesday during a marathon official count, which shrank Calderon’s lead from 400,000 votes after a preliminary vote to 230,000.

Thousands of Lopez Obrador’s supporters, many of whom had marched across the city for hours, chanted “Voto por voto, casilla por casilla” — vote by vote, polling place by polling place — as they streamed into the Zocalo on Saturday.

This strategy raises two questions, both of which are also relevant to the United States. First, what happens if you do a recount and the outcome does not change? Does Obrador say the election is fair or does he argue that the electoral commission rigged the recount as well? Equally as important, does this set a precedent where you always have recounts, something that–I have a strong feeling–Obrador’s supporters would be strongly opposing if their candidate had won the election.

Second, will the argument that the election is rigged suppress turnout in future elections? This question has direct relevance in the United States, where certain segments of the population argue that elections are systematically unfair, are designed to suppress votes, and that “your vote won’t be counted anyway.” By making these arguemtns, there is a risk that certain segments of the population will believe it and will not vote.

Ironically, the argument can become self-reinforcing. In Obrador’s case. if he argues elections are rigged and his supporter’s votes do not matter, they may be less likely to vote in the next election–why should they, the election is rigged–and then their candidate loses again.

The key issue is how the issue of election reform is framed. Framing the debate in terms of confidence–everyone should be confident that the election was well-run, well-audited, and provides an outcome that follows clear rules–is different that framing the debate in terms of fraud and election theft.

It would be beneficial to conduct more extensive survey research on this issue of confidence and how framing the debate over election reform can suppress turnout in elections. Mike and I have started to do some work in this area but there is clearly a need for more research on this very important issue.