This blog is condensed from an article by Ian Clark published in Vector 12.3 (2005), the organ of the British APL Association, which discussed four distinct techniques of rigging an election in a democratic country. It described a toy simulation (no longer available) to let you get a feel for how these rigging techniques work, and how powerful they are, for all their apparent harmlessness. On the contrary, it showed that a narrow win might actually be diagnostic of certain of these techniques in use: a narrow margin not being the best they can deliver, but the target to be aimed for, in order to evade suspicion.

With recent revelations concerning consultancies which offered election-rigging services to interested parties in a number of countries, the matter is once again in the public eye. So it is timely to re-publish the original article, omitting the technical content meaningful only to APL programmers.

The author’s purpose in re-publishing this article is not to advertise his services in the rigging of elections (he has never engaged in such a practice) but to warn bona-fide supporters of democracy of the nature of the risks faced by democracies worldwide from the uncontrolled mining of demographic data, whether published or covertly procured.


My nominations for the two most beneficial inventions of all time are:

  • the telephone, because it enables people to talk to each other who hitherto could not,
  • the computer, because it enables the people to express their political will where hitherto they could not.

But both inventions have their dark side. The telephone gave rise to the loudspeaker and talking films, exploitation of which in the first half of the 20th century enabled the fascists to win power and consolidate their support in many European countries. In the first half of the 21st century, when computer technology (IT) can be expected to reach maturity, some feel that the world is yet again at risk of absolute power falling into the hands of the first group of people who exploit the new technology to its fullest extent.

The maintenance of democracy in the rapidly-growing population of the USA (for which the VAP or “voting age population” currently stands at around 200 million [4]) has historically depended on IT. An early application of the Hollerith punched card system processed census data and ran elections. But IT, formerly so beneficial, may itself pose a threat to the democratic process if it is allowed either to stagnate in public use or develop out of control.

Although this essay takes examples from the USA democracy as it pertained in 2005, its message is applicable to democratic elections worldwide. To make this point clear we will phrase our advice in terms of wholly imaginary parties, with no similarities to actual parties in any nation, or even from tendencies such as left-wing versus right-wing.

Our imaginary nation – call it Orchard – has just two parties: the Apples and the Pears. We are to imagine that the Apples are in power and are seeking re-election. To achieve this they must win a majority of seats. But this time the Apples’ prospects are not so rosy: the Pears have mobilised enough support to outvote them. What can the Apples do to stop Orchard going pear-shaped?

Well, quite a lot – and not all of it honest campaigning. Though if one party doesn’t put much effort into campaigning, it will warn the other side that it is confident it has things nicely stitched-up. But in the light of what we have to say, the reader may well wonder why any party in power need ever relinquish it. George Orwell [1] thought it could only come about because the party lost the will to govern.

Ignoring countless variations and hybrids, we will describe four basic election rigging techniques:

  • R1: Gerrymandering
  • R2: Selective disqualification
  • R3: Stuffing the ballot box
  • R4: Selective discouragement.

Remember: the lawyers for the Pears know these tricks too and will be watching the Apples closely. So success will largely depend on how far the Apples disguise what they are doing.

We will go on to discuss the morality and the politics (which are actually two different things) of our advice to the Apples. Demonstrating how to achieve a reprehensible goal is a Machiavellian thing to do. But we should recall that the chief concern of Machiavelli (in [2], if not so evidently in The Prince) was to draw the fangs of political abuses he identified in his native land, Italy, by bringing them out into the open.

R1: Gerrymandering

Most democracies have provisions to redraw district (Brit. ward) boundaries every few years to equalise the populations within them, the idea being to achieve fairer representation of voters in the legislature.

In the USA, by a ruling of the Supreme Court, districts must be “re-zoned” (UK: “boundaries redrawn”) every ten years at least. In each of the UK countries the Boundaries Commissions undertake this task every ten years. However in the USA it is invariably performed by locally-elected officials or political appointees, who are far from disinterested agents. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of taking advantage of this legal requirement to move enough of their opponents out of a given district to capture it for their own side.

In the State of Texas, Republican-appointed officials were alleged to have done this using sophisticated software, one district (#25) getting itself known as the “Bacon Strip” for its egregious shape. Since 2000, re-zonings in Texas and Pennsylvania have been hotly contested in a series of bizarre actions, including one by Texas Democrats (the Killer Ds) who delayed the 2003 Restructuring Bill (which they claim was a Republican gerrymander) by fleeing to neighbouring Oklahoma in order to make the legislature inquorate.

To be fair, Republicans claim the said Bill was necessary to undo a Democrat gerrymander in 2001. But… when does a venial sin become a mortal sin? When it stops being a lot of work for nothing and starts being effective?

Even before the November 2004 elections, the lawyer for the Democratic challenge in the High Court went on record as saying: “it is now possible to take a mildly Democratic state and gerrymander it to return a strong Republican majority”. The Democrats insist that the Republicans have engaged in wholesale gerrymandering across the USA, a project they say has been coordinated by House Leader Tom DeLay.

Gerrymandering software exploits the unprecedented detail of present-day census data to permit a far more effective gerrymander than hitherto without gross distortion of a district’s boundaries.

Gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry, whose re-zoning activity as Governor of  Massachusetts was so blatant as to create a salamander-shaped district. This was in 1812 – which shows how long the practice has been going on.

Here’s how it works.

Consider two adjacent wards, W1 and W2, which are scheduled for re-zoning. Let’s suppose they have absurdly small populations to highlight the effect, viz. 21 and 33 inhabitants respectively.

Both W1 and W2 are currently Pear wards, the Pear majority in each being just 1 vote. Now, W2 being the larger ward by 12 voters, we are legally required to redraw the boundary to even-up the populations by identifying an area containing half that number (6 voters) for transfer from W2 to W1.

But suppose we are at liberty to choose this area with as unbalanced an electorate as we can contrive, in this case with 2 voters for Apple and 4 for Pear. It’s not hard to achieve if Pear voters cluster along geographical features such as shorelines, rivers, highways or railroad tracks.

After the transfer of this area, both wards contain 27 voters, which looks nice and fair. But the Pears in ward W2 (formerly with a majority of 1) lose 4 supporters to the Apples’ 2, putting the Apples ahead by 1 vote.

So, while performing our legal duty, we have deliberately contrived to capture one of the two Pear wards for the Apples. This is what is meant by gerrymandering.

R2: Selective disqualification

Selective disqualification is when the Apples try to stop given groups of people from casting votes that count, in a manner which deliberately stops more Pears than Apples. This can be by:

  • direct targeting, by disqualifying a given group of people from the official lists of those eligible to vote (like those with criminal records, or expatriates, whose voting preferences are known to be significantly different from Orchard as a whole)
  • indirect targeting, by losing or rejecting all the votes from a given set in which there are more votes cast for the Pears than the Apples (e.g. those cast at a given polling station or voting machine, or by the military posted overseas).

Direct targeting is something the Pears will be watching for. The Apples know they won’t get away with disenfranchising someone (striking them from the voters’ list) just because they’ve said they’ll vote Pear. It’s got to be for some reason which most sane people will accept, e.g. the voter is insane.

The 2000 election in Florida was notorious for the poor usability of the voting apparatus (e.g. the butterfly ballot) and the selectivity of the people affected by this – e.g. older people, the less well-educated, or recent immigrants. When new digital voting machines were installed prior to the 2004 elections, those suspecting a conspiracy had cause to wonder. Was their deployment conspicuously free from political interference? (Well – no.) What might be going on inside those machines? (Hard to say).

The Apples, too, have installed new voting machines and have control over their operation on polling day. The Pears know this, so the Apples deliberately draw their fire by spreading a rumour that the machines contain illicit code to disqualify a selection of Pear votes. They don’t, of course: the political fallout from the Pears finding any such code would be far too great.

There’s a simpler trick the Apples can play.

The Apples have managed to arrange that their election boss (…you) can trigger a software glitch which disqualifies all the votes from any selected ward that has yet to declare its results. It doesn’t need hi-tech to apply this principle. You can also lose selected ballot boxes, or delay bags of postal votes from overseas. You won’t get away with it on a large scale, but – hey! – the voting machines are new and the occasional glitch may pass scrutiny. Demographic software allows the Apples to predict which wards are likely to fall to the Pears. Additionally those wards which are likely to deliver their results late in the day are the ones to target.

With judicious use of the “knockout” feature on voting machines in the light of exit poll reports, you can confidently steer the Apples to a marginal victory. You may not have to use it at all, if sheer random luck is acting in the Apples’ favour. If you over-use it and you win by a significantly greater margin than the exit polls predict, the Pears will ask why so many voting machines went wrong – and they’ll detect a pattern and rumble you.

This is a stealth tactic. It is only feasible because partial results or exit polls are analysed and broadcast by the networks as they come in, leaving those wards yet to complete their voting vulnerable to “knockout”.

R3: Stuffing the ballot box

You can artificially disqualify your opponents’ voters – and you can artificially inflate your own. The Caltech/MIT study [4] examined 3rd-party registration. There are numerous organisations which register voters en-bloc: people who have not voted before, residents of old-folks’ homes, immigrant groups, etc. – and handle the voting process for them. It stands to reason that such blocs of voters are more likely to vote the way they are told than free independent citizens. There is also the matter of sheer fraud. Over a 20 year period, 5,400 dead people were discovered to have voted in the state of Georgia alone [4], however it’s not reported whether the dead mostly vote Republican or Democrat. One would need a Sixth Sense to know that.

Registration is designed to combat blatant fraud, but the problems of scale with the registration system is identified as one of the major issues bedevilling the voting process in the USA. The statistics quoted in [4] are disturbing. Thus the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (called Motor Voter for its linking of voter registration with the renewal of drivers’ licences) led to a big increase in “inactive” registrants, from 1.7 million in 1994 to 14.6 million in 1998. That’s a lot of spooky voters out there. It just needs some Aragorn to go exploring these “Paths of the Dead” for a legion of unsuspected supporters to burst upon the scene and tip the balance for one party or the other.

R4: Selective discouragement

Unlike R3, seeking to discourage your opponent’s supporters on the basis of demographic data has the advantage of being free from the smell of fraud. It is underhand nonetheless.

In 2005 Tony Blair warned his supporters that the outcome of the May election was likely to be decided on a few hundred votes in a handful of seats. And The Week [3] quoted Michael Howard’s advisers as telling him he needed just 838,000 people in 165 marginal Labour seats to switch their allegiance from Labour to Conservative in order to win an overall majority. You can be sure that these figures were not dragged out of the air, but mined from demographic data: published or stolen.

The above-mentioned gerrymander in Texas and elsewhere was a costly things to do if its only aim was to capture a few districts. Of far more value was the effect it undoubtedly had on the poorer voters (predominantly Democrat supporters) to convince them that everything was stitched up and they hadn’t a chance of their votes counting (even if they were actually counted!) So it may have effectively been an instance of R4 rather than R1.

The Apples likewise think it is too costly to woo voters, who might demand as the price of defection that they introduce measures they’d rather not. Each defector is worth two votes, one lost to Pears, one gained by Apples. A couple of Pear supporters who’ve been given the pip is worth exactly the same to the Apples and is a lot cheaper to achieve. It is known, for instance, that younger people are more likely to be impatient with the status-quo and thus vote for change, so it serves the purpose of the Apples to spread the word that politics is a dirty game and there’s far more fun to be had on a rainy afternoon than queuing for hours outside some draughty polling station.

Shady tactics – but is it rigging, or just robust campaigning? If you use demographic data to target your selective discouragement activities, even if the tactics you then employ are a battery of miscellaneous measures, then it’s R4. If you don’t act heavy in too many wards, international observers invited-in from Poland and elsewhere will have little cause to accuse you of “serious” or “widespread” abuse (to them that means bodies with bullets in the back) so R4 can be a stealth tactic too.

Why should we worry?

In July 2001, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project delivered its report [4] on the state of the nation’s voting arrangements. One of the intriguing things they found was that the number of lost votes across the nation was 2%-3% in presidential elections, and they compared this to the fact that in 2000 the winner’s margins in 4 states: Florida, Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin, was less than 0.5%. In response the federal government saw fit to mount a massive program (HAVA: Help America Vote Act, 2002 [5]) to restore public confidence in the electoral process. And, in passing, to restore public acceptance of the legitimacy of office-holders elected by the said process.

There will be calls for much the same in Britain after the revelations of extensive use of demographic data scraped from social networks to engage in the systematic subversion of democracy by the above means (R1-R4).

But why are we demanding yet another exercise in restoring public confidence instead of constructing a voting system which merits our confidence in the first place? This should not be beyond the wit of man to devise, considering the clever things that man can already do to subvert the existing system. We should consider whether, thanks to advances in IT, the following activities are now so dangerous to our democratic way of life that they should be strictly reserved to an impartial and independent agency, or better still outlawed under pain of penalties too heavy to be scoffed at:

  1. third-party registration of voters (R2, R3)*
  2. collecting or processing data on individuals’ party-political preferences and voting behaviour (R1, R2, R3, R4)
  3. partial publication of results based on exit polls and other unofficial polls while voting is underway (R2, R3, R4)
  4. issuing new postal votes (R2, R3)
  5. canvassing postal votes from people who have never yet voted (R2, R3)
  6. publicly inviting certain classes of people to stay away from the polling booths (R2, R3, R4)
  7. publicly impugning the reputation (as distinct from the policies) of a candidate in the two weeks preceding an election (R4).

* After each prohibition the abuses (R1-R4) it combats are shown in parentheses.


Democracy. For all its imperfections, it is still the most effective way mankind has discovered to curb the persistent abuse of power – and free and fair elections for the lawmakers are the sole means of preserving it. You either believe this or you don’t.

Loss of belief in it led Benito Mussolini, an ardent Italian socialist, to forsake the people’s cause and become the first fascist. He was, and still remains, fascism’s most articulate theorist, in spite of his more notorious (and undeniably articulate) imitator in Germany. It is instructive to read Mussolini’s article [6] defining the nature of fascism. The notion touted in the USA of running government like a business corporation is clearly seen to be his – and it is central to his ideas.

But the democratic process is a chain no stronger than its weakest link. We should not wait for voting abuses to become “widespread” before we start to worry, but attack irregularities wherever they occur, as soon as they occur, not leave the fight to a few locals who realise what is going on. Otherwise who’s to blame if we wake up to find ourselves no longer living in a democracy, but an oligarchy flaunting a few democratic customs?

There is no such thing as a small fire in the kitchen. Capturing or unseating the lawmakers would be an act of war when procured by a foreign power – and an act of treason when undertaken by a group of citizens. Thus there is a major case for stern measures whenever electoral abuses occur: they should be investigated for complicity at the highest level – and those found guilty never again entrusted with public office. This may mean disqualifying one or two charismatic leaders, but others will rise to fill their places. All too readily, the said leaders may think. Some will claim that the brilliant brains of certain individuals would be a loss to the nation – but this is to succumb to the cult of personality. It must remain a central principle of democracy that the will of the people, fairly expressed, takes precedence over the will of any one individual, however well-endowed, well-educated, or well-connected.


[1] Orwell, George (1948), Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò, Discourses on Livy.
University of Chicago Press (1996). ISBN 0-226-50036-5

[3] THE WEEK (9 Apr 2005) Blair calls an election, p3.

[4] Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (2001), Voting: What Is /What Could Be.

[5] Help America Vote Act (2002).

[6] Mussolini, Benito, (1932), The Doctrine Of Fascism.