In Box

The Science of Ballot-Box Stuffing

What's the best way to detect electoral fraud? You may want to follow the numbers.

Sometimes election fraud can be laughably obvious. When Vladimir Putin took 99.8 percent of the vote in Chechnya in this year's Russian presidential election, it probably wasn't because the republic where he had violently crushed an armed insurgency a little more than a decade ago had developed an overwhelming affection for him. But sometimes, when the fraud is a bit subtler, more sophisticated methods of detection are needed.

Political scientists Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco of New York University have discovered an unusual method to detect rigged voting: looking only at the numbers. They came upon the idea somewhat by accident and wrote up their findings in the journal Political Analysis.

"We were in Nigeria for other fieldwork and got our hands on presidential election results from 2003 from the polling-station level," Beber explains. "We noticed that just looking at the return sheets, some of them looked off. But we couldn't quite put our finger on it."

Try this experiment: Grab a pencil and, as quickly as possible, write down a string of 20 random numbers. You might think there's no pattern to the numbers, but chances are you're wrong. Psychologists have found that when making up long strings of numbers, people tend to overuse small digits, underestimate the number of times digits will repeat themselves, overuse pairs of adjacent digits like 2-3 or 7-8, and underuse pairs of distant digits like 1-7 or 9-2. In short, people aren't very good at making up numbers that seem random.

When Beber and Scacco examined the results from the Nigerian election -- where there had been widespread and credible accounts of fraud -- they found several of these exact inconsistencies. In particular, local tabulators tended to overuse zero as the last digit in returns and underuse the number 2. Zeros were overused in general. When the authors applied the same analysis to a Swedish election where there had been no reports of fraud, they found no such inconsistencies.

The study also looked at Senegal's controversial 2007 election, which returned President Abdoulaye Wade to power and in which fraud was alleged but not proven. Suspicious digits -- particularly the abundance of zeros -- again appeared in these returns, suggesting that Wade's reelection might have been partially rigged. (He was finally removed from power after another controversial election this year.)

This method detects only numerical fraud in vote counting, not other methods like physically stuffing the ballot box or voter intimidation, but Beber and Scacco hope it can become part of the tool kit for international election monitors. They also freely admit that the publication of their research may help would-be election cheats improve their techniques, perhaps by employing a computerized random-number generator to eliminate unconscious habits or by tossing a couple of extra 2s into the mix.

"There's a bit of an arms race between people engaging in election fraud and those trying to detect it," Beber says. "We're going to have to keep innovating, but at least we're making their job a little more difficult."

In Box

Please, Don't Send Food

A new study suggests that food aid could actually prolong conflict rather than resolve it.

There's been plenty of debate in recent years about whether humanitarian aid actually helps rid the world of extreme poverty. The inability of developed countries to make a dent in the problem, despite spending billions of dollars each year, is what economist and noted aid skeptic William Easterly calls the "second tragedy" of global poverty. But a recent study takes this skepticism to a whole new level, suggesting that food aid not only doesn't work, but also can prolong the violent conflicts it's meant to help resolve.

Looking at a sample of developing countries between 1972 and 2006, economists Nancy Qian of Yale University and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University found a direct correlation between U.S. food aid and civil conflict. For every 10 percent increase in the amount of food aid delivered, they discovered, the likelihood of violent civil conflict rises by 1.14 percentage points.

The results confirm anecdotal reports that food aid during conflicts is often stolen by armed groups, essentially making international donors part of the rebel logistics effort. According to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the food aid shipments to Somalia in the early 1990s was looted or stolen. In her book The Crisis Caravan, journalist Linda Polman reported how Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide appropriated aid given out in refugee camps in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, further fueling conflict in the region. Polman also estimated that Nigeria's 1967-1970 Biafran war -- one of the first African humanitarian crises to get global media attention -- may have lasted 12 to 16 months longer than it otherwise would have because of the international aid seized by rebel groups.

More recently, during the war in Afghanistan, there have been widespread reports of everything from Pop-Tarts to staple goods being resold at local markets. Even more worryingly, up to one-third of the aid to Uruzgan province has reportedly fallen into Taliban hands.

Does this mean we shouldn't give any aid at all? Of course not, say the study's authors, who hope instead that the United States, which is the world's largest supplier of food aid, shipping out 2.5 million metric tons in 2010, will reconsider just how this aid is given out. Qian points to the often arbitrary way the United States increases aid during times of domestic agricultural surplus as particularly dangerous. When American farmers grow more food, Washington tends to give away more, regardless of need.

Qian argues that it's time we all get a little more selective about giving. "If you randomly assign aid to countries without considering what's going on, that's going to increase conflict," she says. The main takeaway is if you want to stop civil wars, you've got to stop feeding the warriors.