NSF Grant: Fixing the Horse-Race

New Directions in the Study of Election Interventions

with Dov Levin, filed August 17, 2020


Election interference is common in international affairs.  The United States has been both the target of such interventions, and has undertaken them against others.   We set out to answer foundational questions related to interventions.  Why do candidates running in elections assume different positions on issues outsiders care about? What is the fallout of such interventions, in terms of democracy around the world and the problem of securing reliable allies in other countries?  We use a combination of formal models and statistical methods. We propose a new theoretical framework and arguments on the causes and effects of electoral interventions.  We also outline the construction of a comprehensive dataset of all such interventions from 1945 to present, to test this framework.  The proposed activity will allow us and others to make rapid progress on a topic of vital importance for U.S. national security.

Intellectual Merit:

We set out to establish the micro-foundations of election interventions in a voting-model framework. We trace the origins of foreign actors' decisions to intervene in elections to the incentives faced by candidates competing for public office. The study of elections is a cornerstone of the study of democratic politics. How states gain  or keep their allies abroad, and use them to advance their interests, is a key focus of international relations.  Foreign election interventions are one key tool countries can use for this purpose.  Such meddling takes place at a productive cross-road: candidates assume positions on issues outsiders care about; foreigners choose whether and how to reward candidates; voters select a government, based on what they see; elected governments deliver cooperation to foreigners.  Existing research has provided incomplete or partial equilibrium explanations: e.g., we see that candidates adopt divergent positions towards outsiders but do not know why the median voter theorem fails to apply; foreigners appear to expect increased cooperation from local proteges, but we do not know whether they can hold them down to the promise of delivering such, and so on. We provide an outline of a model and offer to expand it into a unified theoretical framework, explaining known regularities and offering new hypotheses.  We show how vote-buying can undermine the median voter theorem result, leading to platform divergence among candidates.  We propose extensions to help understand how that plays out in different institutional settings, how it impacts democracy and international cooperation, and we study the role of unilateral vs. multilateral coalitions of democratic or autocratic interveners.  Those, in turn, help us better understand how and when foreign powers can affect key local developments in other countries. We collect and document a comprehensive dataset to advance the research agenda we outline.

Broader Impacts:

At present, nine out of ten countries hold elections.  Our project will contribute to the growing public debate on whether and how democratic countries can protect themselves from election interference through the creation of a new dataset of election interference and an advanced analysis of the causes and effects of such meddling.  This will provide decision-makers with a better idea on the effectiveness of different ways of shoring up electoral integrity, pointing out where and against whom such resources would be best focused. Many countries are passing legislation intended to protect their elections.  We will offer guidelines on the most effective ways to do that.  We will contribute to the creation of a new election vulnerability global index. U.S. national security depends on how others intervene in American elections, but also on how American interventions have attracted or estranged allies abroad. We will help to create a better informed general public and civil society on this topic through community outreach sessions, media interviews, and presentations and discussions of our work.