How to Rig an Election
The 2019 presidential election is over but the discourse about “election fraud” in Indonesia remains foggy and tends to shun away from the statistical elements that makes up the election itself. The Constitutional Court rejected Prabowo’s challenge to the 2019 presidential election results when he complained of “structural, systematic and massive electoral fraud”, but what does that standard even mean? Why does It matter in a large-scale election like Indonesia’s? How do you actually manipulate the voter list? Ultimately, we ask: what does one need to do in order to rig an election? In this episode, we dive deep into this issue with Seth Sorderborg, an expert on Indonesian elections and a Ph.D candidate in political science at Harvard University.
Seth shared so many interesting insights on how Indonesian elections are conducted and clarified the appeals to the Constitutional Court so well, that I’ve decided to post the entire transcript of our conversation. Hope you find it useful.
Types of Fraud and Electoral Manipulation
Shawn: There have been some of the claims of fraud, systematic manipulation of the votes. What are your thoughts on that and the election itself, how has it been conducted over the years and what evidence have you seen of fraud and manipulation of the vote?
Seth: One of the big projects that I worked on last year, basically on electoral fraud in Indonesia for a book chapter that is going to be published this year. A book called “Electoral Manipulation in Asia.”
One of the things you start looking into for academics and have had to discuss when thinking of fraud and problems of electoral administration, you very quickly realize that there are infinite varieties that could go wrong. Or things that people find inappropriate and some people who don’t. One of the really important discussions are the set of narrow questions: Were the votes counted properly? Were the rules about voter eligibility fair, properly expansive or properly restrictive? Was the election authority able to do what they are set out to do, which is a separate question from how well did they execute what they wanted to do.
Performance of the KPU
Seth: The chapter I was working on for the book was the transition in Indonesia over time, from a system where there were elections during the New Order, which is important to keep in mind when thinking about the KPU [the General Election Commission] and how they work. In general, the KPU has done a very good job. It has been widely and correctly reported that they just conducted the world’s largest single day election. The reason that the single-day is brought up, is because more people voted in the Indian elections, but that process takes about a month. Indonesia has done it in a single-day and is unusual for a country that in terms of the number of voters. These are the second largest elections because more people casts votes than even in the US election even though there are more people who live in the United States. So, you’re not only looking at the world’s largest single-day election but the world's second largest election now twice in a row. Because more people voted in 2014 than in 2016 in the US and again in the 2019 election. It is very likely that the number of voters this year will exceed the number of voters in 2020 in the United States, so it is a big job. And one of the things that are both good and bad is that Indonesia hand counts the vote.
New Order Elections
Seth: I mentioned that these elections have been run since the Soeharto years. There is a lot of expertise in how to carry out a tally of votes, how many polling stations there should be, how many people you need to count 160 million votes. So even during the Soeharto years, when Benedict Anderson had this wonderful phrase, he dismissed all the research that was about New Order era elections as they were figuring out what is the relative balance of power based on who wins votes in parliament back in the 1990s and he said, “Oh but those elections are carefully managed to produce two thirds majority for Golkar.”
What’s interesting about the approach that was taken by Golkar and the government at the time which are not separable. They really are one in the same, is that they were conducting a real election but, it was a managed election. And so what I mean is that there are votes being cast and then there are votes being counted. And things are being done to the count so that it produced the appropriate result which was two thirds for Golkar and moderately shifting results for the two other parties, PPP and PDIP.
Shawn: At that time, it wasn’t a direct election as it is now. Can you explain very briefly on how did that work? Did people vote for the parties and then the parties decided who their representatives will be?
Seth: That’s right. So it was a closed-list electoral system, it was proportional and there was no direct election of the president so in a technical sense, until the first direct election, Indonesia had a parliamentary system but one in which were the Chief Executive was extremely powerful and obviously that was the case under Soeharto but that was also the case after 1998. Even before the direct election of the president.
Presidential vs Parliamentary System
Shawn: Indonesia now uses a presidential system but was it different before? Or was it always a presidential system but sort of using a parliamentary system at the same time. Is that correct?
Seth: The thing about it was that they called the office, the Office of the President but it was a parliamentary system because the executive was being chosen from within the legislature and that’s the meaningful distinction for classifying regime types. When you got someone, who is elected from the population as a whole for the Chief Executive, that’s what you call a presidential system regardless of the name of the office. And when the government is formed by the legislature selecting the Chief Executive and from there you decide the ministers for the cabinet, that’s what you call a parliamentary system.
So in the presidential election where Gus Dur was elected, that actually took place inside the MPR [Upper House]. That wasn’t a direct election and a lot of the anger was about the party that had the largest amount of votes [PDIP 33%] wasn’t allowed to take the first step in forming the government, and in general in parliamentary systems, a lot of the differences between them boil down to different rules for what exactly is the process after the election when the representatives are finished for choosing the Chief Executive and the cabinet. And that was never very clear in the Indonesian system because the system was not designed to actually solve the problem of government formation after contested election. It was a formality that sort of cemented the continuing popular appeal of Soeharto.
Background on Golput
Seth: But one interesting thing about those elections and has been for people who studied fraud or studied weird things that go on in elections have noted about Indonesia in the past, the term “golput” or golongan putih is where it comes from, it has come to mean that anyone who abstains from the election and is kind of a catch-all for not participating. There is a lot of fear that golput would be higher in 2019 that was based on no evidence other than fear. In fact, participation was at least as high, if not higher than it was in the previous election. When I say participation was higher in the most recent election, it was the share of registered voters that was higher in this election, there is no question about that. There is a question in my mind about whether some of that was created by cleaning up the voter roll so that the number of registered voters were closer to the true number of eligible voters than it was in 2014. Some of it was a genuine increase in participation but it was introduced by cleaning up the voter rolls.
Shawn: But for abstaining, during the Soeharto era, people would go to the polling station but then, they wouldn’t choose a candidate, or they would choose more than one. They would intentionally make their vote invalid. Is that still the case now where people would go and make a “protest vote” or are you saying that people would not go to the poll and vote? Is that golput where people would just not show up at the polls or would they do something in the polls?
Seth: So you’re right. The reason we name golongan putih is that people got attached to this name was because of the act of casting a blank ballot; a white ballot. Now it has come to mean a linguistic thing. Now it has come to mean anyone who doesn’t participate for whatever reason. But there was an election in 1997 where a third of the ballots cast were blank.
One of the interesting things about the Soeharto year elections were that the number of people golput, in a sense literally casting white or blank ballots was very high. You could sort of take the temperature of what is going on by tracking this rate of invalid voting. Of course, we know that poll workers were doing things to make sure that the number of invalid votes didn’t increase and it was very normal for them to open up the ballot boxes afterwards and punch blank ballots. So the rise of golput numbers during the end of the Soeharto years also reflect some breakdown of the system for delivering those votes.
Free and Fair Election: “Tally Fraud”
Shawn: Interesting, so Soeharto stepped down in May 1998 and then there was a rushed election, an unscheduled general election in 1999. So that’s the reform or Reformasi period and that was the first reportedly free and fair election since 1955. Is that accurate?
Seth: That’s accurate.
Shawn: The system changed where you have a somewhat free and fair elections, now you have the elections going on in 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019. How do you see the allegations of fraud since 1999 with the elections?
Seth: There are three things that are considered important and to keep separate. And one is this idea of fraud, which in academic circles is something in which you are tampering with the ballot count. I often use the word “tally fraud” to specify that when we were talking about, not fraud, but something about where people are taking control of ballots when they are not supposed to have control over. That is kind of the good way of thinking about fraud, which is a very different thing from inappropriate campaigning, whatever that might be.
Generally, what is inappropriate in a campaign is defined by the laws in the country. Indonesia has some of the most restrictive laws about campaign speeches in the world for a free democracy so that actually becomes important in the discussion about: did fraud occur in Indonesia in 2019 or in 2014? One of the things that gets brought up is X or Y inappropriate messaging in a poster that was placed in a location that they were not allowed to [outside of the campaign rules]. That is the sort of thing that is important in court in Indonesia because there are laws that say you can’t put posters at all without the approval from a local election commission and it can get candidates in trouble. That is not the same thing as academics are talking about when they are talking about fraudulent elections.
So there’s fraud in that sense. Then you have stuff you might put in the category of maladministration or mistakes. It is a logistical challenge, or even a logistical nightmare to put these things together when stuff goes wrong, it is pretty common for local poll workers to conduct ad hoc fixes. There were 823,000 polling stations. Someone somewhere lost their ballots, right? And you end up getting poll workers trying to figure out how to solve that problem in a fair way. They often come up with solutions that meet everyone’s standards in the polling station and are completely illegal because the laws are very specific on what you’re supposed to do. And obviously don’t have a lot of room in them when stuff gets lost.
Performance of the KPU - Part II
Shawn:The task that the General Election Commission is given is just a massive task. It’s a massive archipelago and there are over 800,000 polling stations. Many of them are very remote. It’s just a logistics nightmare to actually execute the election on the ground and preparation start months and months before the election. What are your thoughts on the performance of the KPU?
Seth: I’ve always been impressed with the performance of the KPU. I think there are a lot of people who operate from the framework of we can identify a problem and it must be fixed now and until it’s fixed, the election is broken. I don’t think that that framework adequately respects the challenges that the KPU faces in trying to do a hand count an election with over 800,000 polling places in one day. They have a pretty high commitment to integrity. They are fairly decentralized now since 1999 because the law requires them to be because that’s how you conduct an election of this magnitude. There are hundreds of examples of local election commissioners engaging in some kind of conduct that is not appropriate. Sometimes that’s misconduct, sometimes that’s mistakes and you can go through them.
Different Oversight Bodies
Seth: There are many various oversight bodies. There is the Bawaslu, which is an increasingly powerful and important oversight body. There is also something called as the DKPP which is the Honor Commission of the Election Administration. They are the people who are responsible for disciplining election commission or Bawaslu, so election oversight commission members who engage in misconduct. And then there are the ordinary courts, which handle certain kinds of disputes that arise. It’s the ordinary state affairs court because Indonesia has a civil law system and there is such a thing as a state affairs court, which is baffling to an American like me. But very normal for the rest of the world. And then there is the Constitutional Court.
There are many different bodies involved in election oversight. There is really only one that mostly does the oversight on election administration and the KPU does a generally good job and part of the reason we are aware of the hundreds, potentially even thousands of cases of things going wrong is both because the media is free and able to do their oversight function and identify problems. And also because the KPU is pretty good about transparency and the commission system they have set up where local commissioners are these independent people usually drawn from either local legal circles or local advocacy circles. These are separate from the bureaucrats that do a lot of the management. When I say commissioner that means it's around the Kabupaten level where they have commissioners at every Kabupaten. Even if one commissioner thinks something is wrong, they have a lot of avenues for raising those concerns within the KPU, with the media, and usually KPU commissioners are taken quite seriously, or with now the Bawaslu or the DKPP. Generally, when things go to court, it’s because a candidate is upset with the KPU. The KPU generally does not take people to court.
Legal Standard on the “Structured, Massive & Systematic”
Shawn: On that part, we saw Prabowo and his legal team in 2014 make claims of systematic, widespread electoral manipulation. The same claims in 2019. What are your thoughts on those claims? Can you break down, as you mentioned, there’s mistakes and also intentional manipulation? What are your thoughts on the systematic electoral fraud that Prabowo’s team claimed? Did that happen?
Seth: That did not happen in the presidential race. Rather there is no evidence that something like that happen in the presidential race, which makes me comfortable saying it didn’t happen. Not in the way they sort of implying. This is where we have to talk about what fraud is and how it’s detected. But also keep in mind that the accounts of people who lose the election are often motivated and incomplete.
So Prabowo’s team made the claim of systematic structured and massive fraud occurred in the election. The reason they used that phrase is that because that’s the legal standard they have to meet. So that’s not a phrase they use to simply describe what’s going on but it’s a phrase they used to meet a barrier to entry into the Constitutional Court.
Shawn: So that’s why they have been using that phrase? That’s why Wiranto, Megawati and others in 2009 used that phrase is because it is the minimum requirement to bring their claims to the Constitutional Court?
Seth: In the 2008 East Java gubernatorial election, there was Khofifah [Parawansa] who claimed that she lost an election through structured, systematic and massive fraud. I believe that the Court are the one who said in order to rule that something went wrong with an election and we need to rerun it, the fraud needs to be shown to be structured, systematic and massive.
The massive is important because they don’t want the Court to become a permanent avenue for everyone to say, “Well I lost 300 votes in this polling station so please rerun the election.” The massive is really about the margin of victory. Structured is basically there to say you have to show that it was more than an accident. If you think about the scale of the presidential election, about 823,000 polling places, and we imagine 1% of polling stations experienced some kind of problem, then 8,230 polling places will have a problem. It’s pretty straightforward to make the claim of 8,230 is so many and that’s massive. The systematic part is there to basically say we know that there is some error in vote counting. I’m sure there is. It is impossible to get a perfect process here because of the logistics involved and the contingencies that occur. And also, because there will always be some bad actors. It would be naive to assume that all election committee members in over 800,000 places are acting in good faith. Most are but 1% is enough to produce 8,000 flawed polling stations right? So, the structured part was added to basically that we need to show it wasn’t an accident. You need to show people that we are engaging in a process to produce a fraudulent result.
One thing that is important here, a lot of people in Indonesia know how to stuff ballot boxes. Anyone who was a poll worker before 1998 has. In 1997 or earlier it has been done. One thing that is unusual about Indonesian elections is the number of people who actually know how to do this stuff. I think that is also one reason why the court is comfortable with this standard, like we know what it looks like. Anyone who came of age before 1998 has seen a systematically, I won’t say fraudulent election but there was a systematic effort to change the count to produce a specific result.
Forensic Accounting and Fraud
Shawn: I heard stories that in the late 90s there was an election where Golkar won in some parts of Irian Jaya at the time, they won more votes then there were actual voters.
Seth: I haven’t heard those stories, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened. That actually gets into just a little bit about ways you can see whether something went wrong which are closely related to ways you can detect fraud but one of the common ways is to just check. Basically, you borrow techniques from forensic accounting, you ask if the numbers add up. Like, do they literally add up. Are there more votes registered here than voters? Is it more than it is plausible? Because Indonesian voting laws do make it possible for slightly more ballots to be cast in a polling station than the number of registered voters. You can theoretically have 102% voter turnout and that’s because there is a system in place for provisional voting so people who are living in a place and want to vote but are not registered to vote because they are not in the same location or did not meet the deadline to register in the place they are currently living. They can cast ballots in at least national elections depending on where their ID cards says. Maybe they could also cast ballots in the gubernatorial election but the point is people who show up at polling stations who weren’t already on the list and there are some provisions in place for them to cast a vote to accommodate the situation where everyone who registered shows up to vote and a few other people who are registered to vote.
Also, all the polling stations gets extra ballots and in 2014, it was set at a 102%, so there were 2% additional ballots. I think in 2019 it was the same standard. What you would look for, if there were to be any problems… one interesting thing that could occur here that isn’t a sign that anything went wrong on its own is turnout above 100% but below a 102.1%. That can happen. It does but it is not very common.
Shawn: What about the accusations of the manipulation of the voter list? Prabowo mentions that every time in court. Also, Prabowo and Megawati mentioned that in 2009, Yusuf Kalla and Wiranto did the same. What’s the situation with the voter list? Is that an issue or are they just mentioning that to meet the requirement of the court?
Seth: There are some problems. The voter list is an imperfect list. No one who defends it makes the claim that there are absolutely no mistakes on it, but the existence of mistakes is a very different thing from the existence of a conspiracy to change the outcome of the election. Couple things on that. When the court said structured, part of what structured means is you can show that there is a hierarchy and people giving out orders to other people who do these things, and with the voter list that is one of the places where the Prabowo campaign has tried to say that there is a structural problem. They tried to say that either the KPU or the respective civil registry Dukcapil were somehow taking orders from the incumbent to alter the voter roll.
How To Get Control of the Ballots
Seth: There are problems, as happened in a lot of places in the world. None of these should be considered unique to Indonesia but if you want to engage in tally fraud, if you want to get control of the ballots where you do not have control over…you need a mechanism to get them. And the mechanisms boil down to maybe two or three. You need some way of getting extra ballots sent somewhere where it won’t be used by people, that’s a big one. Or you can get control of the people counting to get them to change counts after the ballots are cast.
When you’re thinking about how would you get a supply of ballots. The closest thing to a perfect fraud is where you can actually have the ability to punch the ballots yourself because if you fiddle with the tally and there’s an audit or recount, it might be possible to detect that a change happened. That’s also the case if there is a mistake is made with tallying then in a recount where they go back over the ballots, they see that a number got written down wrongly. That happens in a pretty regular basis and it is fairly easy to detect. Sometimes when mistakes happen it is very obvious. Just like in 2014, there were a 1000 polling stations with 10,000 votes for one or the other candidate in them. Most polling stations maxed out at 400 votes and what happened was that someone had written down an extra zero. And it was very clear. When the C1 forms were online, you can see that there is a blurry extra zero.
Shawn: The C1 form is the actual tally count of the poll?
Seth: Yeah, it’s a polling station’s tally count.
Tanita: I just want to say that I used to think, why doesn’t KPU just print a couple of hundred extra ballots in case of accidents, so that it could be easily replaced. But as you are explaining this, I thought to myself that it’s not the way it should be. They should only print just enough for the number of voters.
Seth: Yeah, that is what the 2% thing is about. You realize… how would I steal this if I wanted to. That’s the best way to do it and get a hold of real ballots. That’s why the KPU requires extra ballots to be burned after the election so they cannot be snuck into the box later.
The Dead Voting
Seth: This gets back to the dead voting. One of the ways to make sure that there are lots of extra ballots where no one will show up to claim them is to keep people who have already died or moved away on the voter rolls of the district. This is a classic part of an election fraud procedure. I said something about Illinois because that is probably what got John F. Kennedy get elected as president in 1960. There is a famous dispute over whether the mayor of Chicago, Daley used a set of votes that were on the rolls that would help get Kennedy elected. There is a debate whether that happened, which probably did happen, but the debate also was about whether it mattered for the presidential election, and that is less clear.
The point is, this is a classic means of getting control of ballots and here. The voter roll is a bigger logistical challenge. It might not be bigger but in some ways, it is a different logistical challenge. The initial source of the vote file is the Dukcapil. In this election, there was a dispute over the KPU, the Dukcapil and the two campaigns that led to the KPU basing the voter file from the 2014 voter file instead of the voter list they got initially from the Dukcapil. The general outline of how the voter list is created are that the civil registry provides the KPU with the list of people who live in the respective districts, and then there are several different cut-offs for individuals who live in those districts to get themselves registered.
If you see the run up to an election, there are these signs that go up that says, “Get registered!” But then also usually in the watch post, such as the RT/RW guard posts in the neighborhood, the voter list for that neighborhood will be posted up. The reason that is being posted up is so that people could walk over and see if there are on the list or see if someone who is not supposed to be on the list is on the list. Then there is a follow up where all the stickers get pasted in everyone’s house saying that this many registered voters are staying at this house.
Claims on the Voter List
Shawn: But based on the information, how do you see the presidential election overall?
Seth: In this election, the Prabowo campaign repeatedly claimed that there were serious problems with the voter list and there was an accord reached at one point where the Prabowo campaign said that there are a lot of names that should not be on that list and the Jokowi campaign was present in the meeting. This is one of the instances where both campaigns are brought in and discussed and bargained. They found a lot of names that they believe should not be on that list before the election. The voter list was reduced and there was an additional voter list in this election, the DPTb. The DPT is the final voter list and then there was the DPTb, which was the Daftar Pemilih Tetap Tambahan that is the additional list or revised voter list, and that was smaller than the first voter list. There is the temporary voter list, then a final voter list and now there is one more.
But after that accord was reached, the Prabowo campaign continued to say that there were problems with the list, and the key claim is that… if you watched TV One, you might have gotten to see Fadli Zon [Deputy Chair of Gerindra and Deputy Speaker of the House] and Amien Rais [Founder of PAN] talking about this with a chalkboard. Both of these figures are important members of Prabowo’s campaign team. They said on TV that there were tens of millions of names on the voter list that shouldn’t be there. The basis of that claim is kind of interesting. They had a copy of the voter list because the voter list is what you can get from the KPU. It is public information, around 180 million names. It’s very long, many gigabyte database. After the discussions that led to the revised voter list where they got probably a lot who were deceased people or people who moved. Because anybody who did not notify the civil registry or any civil registry office that is moving slow is going to produce names on the official list that is not supposed to be there because there is just lag.
Irregular Birth Dates
Seth: But the Prabowo campaign keeps claiming that there were birthdays on December 31st, January 1st and July 1st. Basically, if you look at the birth dates in the voter file, which I actually had done with the Pilkada voter file, too many people are born in July according to the month of birth. I remember seeing this last year and feeling, “Oh my gosh! What’s going on?” For a while I thought that maybe people were taking their kid’s KTP’s out in July to get them into school, which is alright people are entering into the system in the month of July. But then it turns out that almost all of them have the same birth date, which actually there are three different dates that pop up way more than you can predict according to an actuary table.
An important fact about the claims made by the Prabowo campaign before the court case and during, they said that birth month and birth date should be uniformly distributed, where people should have roughly equal probability of being born on a given day. That is not true. It is a well-known fact among demographers that birth date data is weird. Generally, people are not born on weekends because births are generally not induced on weekends. There are important shifts around holidays. I think Indonesian people know that nine months after Lebaran, there are a lot of people being born. So you can see these cycles revolving around Lebaran. It is not true that there should be equal numbers of births in every month, there are cycles to this.
But it is weird that a lot of people are born in July 1st and December 31st. Well, it turns out there is a procedure that the Dukcapil uses when someone enters the system with no birth record. The statute that has been changed twice, so depending on which birth years you are looking at the data set, you’ll see a different day. So, at one point it was in December and in July. I think at some point it was on July 15th and then July 1st or the other way around. Basically, the point is if your your birth date is lost in the system, there is a statutory day that you get. It’s this little quirk of the record keeping is that in July 15th in the civil registry, that might mean they are born in July 15th but it is more likely that it means their birth date was lost for some reason. If you start thinking about, in a country like Indonesia, where the civil registry system went electronic only in the mid 2000s and even that process is not finished, some of the older ones are not completely entered, the ways of your birth date or your birth year getting lost are pretty common. It could be a person loses their birth certificate, it could be a Dukcapil office got burned down or got flooded and lost. There were these claims that the Prabowo campaign were making tens of millions, depending on which slideshow you were looking at, they would have several million people that would say have their birth dates on the same day - this is proof of fraud. This is an important leap to make: isn’t this number weird? It must be a conspiracy to produce a fraudulent election result; which is quite a leap to make. Even I did that too, “Why… there are a lot of July births there!” Well it turns out, there is a very good reason, especially for older people who have their birth dates in July that have nothing to do with when they are actually born.
Then, to prove that there were a large-scale conspiracy going on, because that’s what they [Prabowo]were claiming, you’d need to show that those recorded births was happening in places that were more likely to support Jokowi. It is not enough to show that there was something odd in the voter list to prove that fraud occurred, you need to then show a connection that the thing you’ve identified in the list, that might be an error, that might be deliberate, and the outcome that you were saying happened.
Legal Standard on Massive, Structured and Systematic- Part II
Tanita: Would it still be considered fraud, based on academics or a law point of view, if they have been able to prove that there have been some misconduct or tally fraud count but not necessarily change the end result? Is that possible or would the Court accept it? It seems to be that the Court will only accept if there has been a systematic widespread fraud if the margin tipped to the other side.
Seth: There are basically two things that are going on. For the study of fraud, all you need to show is that someone is fiddling with the count on purpose and that is sort of the key thing. It’s maladministration or just mistakes if something got messed up.
There is a whole world of tools that we’re looking at for statistics of the elections. If they were consistent - we used the term data generating process in statistics - there is a data generating process of a properly done election and so it has known properties. If you look at graphs of the numbers, they look a certain way. And if the election is not administered in that way, the graphs will look different and that might be a fraud, and that might be special rules, that might be mistakes, but one of the funny things that comes up is too many polling stations that come up with the exact same number of votes for both candidates. What probably happened in those places because they were randomly distributed was that almost certainly what would happen is that there were those mistakes and the committee came to an accord that a fair thing to do in light of their mistake is to give equal votes to both candidates. Now that’s not neutral actually. Unless the election is perfectly equal. I can imagine a very sophisticated plan where you start doing that where you get poll workers to do that in places where you have less support. But then you would start seeing that not randomly spread across the country, like it was all in the same kind of places. So that would be a kind of maladministration where you could detect and that would involve the tally.
On the question on whether it changes the outcome, the Constitutional Court has created basically a set of barriers that you need to show that the outcome would have changed and that is common around the world but also a lot of places will also allow - even if you can’t prove for sure that a number of votes were at stake would definitely change the outcome of the election. If it’s close to that or there are signs that something large is happening, it is possible for challenges to go through.
This is where the legal and academics diverge because the academics are interested in were people messing with the tallies regardless of whether it changes the outcome of the election. We are also interested in that but the legal reasoning is that you almost always have to show that it could have made a difference. And often all that means is showing enough problems in the polling stations that the outcome could change. It depends on how formal the court is. You can imagine a court that is really hostile during these claims that basically says, “Oh you showed that it was in a 1,000 polling stations and the margin was 50,000 votes and there were 2,000 votes at stake in those polling stations. But you didn’t show that those 50,000 votes were changed.” That would make a court that is determined not to rule that an election was false and I think there have been decisions like that here. You can also imagine a court that says, “Enough votes were at stake and we’re troubled by the quantity of polling stations that have problems that were ordering a revote.” But those kind of balancing things are the job of the court.
Reasons for the Court Appeals
Shawn: Given those circumstances and the high level of transparency in the voting process, why do all the presidential candidates since 2004 always take their losses to the Constitutional Court? Every single one of them has done that since 2004 and in this case in 2019, why is this always the case? Of course, they have to use the terminology systematic, structured, massive electoral fraud. Are they sore losers? Do they actually believe that? What’s the reasoning behind that do you think?
Seth: I think there are three things. One is it’s justiciable in Indonesia in ways that a lot of other countries are harder. In Indonesia, it is both easy and hard to bring an electoral claim and what I mean by that is, if you make the claim, if you’re disputing the result of an election, you get an automatic acceptance at the Constitutional Court. Now, recently they have said in non-presidential elections, only if the margin is less than 3% and that’s because they were getting too many cases. I think it is fair to say that “sore loser-ness” is real. It is a really big part of this story. If you look all around the world, losing candidates bring lawsuits all the time.
It happens for different reasons. Sometimes it happens because they are sore losers and sometimes it happens because things really did go wrong. But here, there is a straightforward path because the law says the constitutional court hears disputed elections and the constitutional court ultimately rules on who wins. They are sort of the last step. The KPU says the result of the count, the decision of the KPU is that this person got more votes and the Constitutional Court has to sign off on that. So that’s why the constitutional court is involved so immediately in this process.
In a country like Brazil, there is a special electoral court and their whole job is to hear people say, “I lost because they stole it from me!” and sometimes that is what happened. So “sore loser-dom” is part of it. On the presidential case, part of why I’m less sympathetic to the claim is that, except for 2014, these weren’t close elections. You don’t steal 15 million votes without leaving footprints, like you just cannot do it.
Case: Mexican Election
Seth: Famous examples of stolen elections, or probably stolen elections in parts of the world. There was one in Mexico in 1994 where the PRI, the party that ran in Mexico for most of its history and briefly again recently. The polls closed and the election results were coming in. The PRI is actually kind of behind. Power goes out. Then, the TV stations for about two hours. And when they come back online, they’re like “we’d like to announce that the PRI is winning.” That’s a famous example of an election that - we know that there was something going on in that election - because there were so many public opinion polling that was happening that showed that PRI was in terrible shape. When they let people answer anonymously, when they told the pollsters directly “who you were going to vote for?” “Oh, I’m gonna vote for the PRI.” Then we gave them an envelope that says, “Choose the parties and then give it to us” and the answer is really different.
So you can kind of know in advance if an election is close, if something is going on, there is these kind of ham-handed things that countries have to do if they are about to lose elections. In Istanbul recently, the AKP lost the mayoral election recently, in a really close race. So a court happened to cancel the result just because the AKP lost and order a revote, which the AKP lost by a lot. Because people were mad about that. When things are going in an authoritarian or fraudulent direction, you generally can tell. In Georgia, the United States, recently there was a gubernatorial election in which the Secretary of State in Georgia was running against a Democratic party challenger. The Secretary of State is the person who maintains the voter roll and chooses where polling stations will happen, and the of Secretary of State closes polling stations in Democratic leaning districts. He removed tens of thousands of people in the voter rolls. I mean that’s the sort of thing that goes on in the run up to an election that is really troubled.
Forensic Fraud Count
Seth: The margin in this presidential election was large. The margin in 2009 was really large. In 2014, it was closer and when it’s close that’s when you have to start looking at the thing that I was talking about earlier where there are footprints in the statistics of the election that tells you if something went wrong. So, when I look at the 2014 results, I was very interested in seeing if there is evidence of fraud in the presidential election.
One of the classic techniques is you take all of the polling stations’ results. I think I mentioned this before where you only look at the last digits. If say 300 votes are cast at a polling station, 111 for one candidate and 189 for the other candidate, the last digits are 1 and 9. 111 and 189. Those digits should be, as long as polling stations have enough votes on average and enough is more than 50, those digits should be uniformly distributed. So there should be the same number of zeros as ones as twos as threes as fours as fives as sixes as sevens… so if you graph them, you make a bar chart, the height for the zero and the height for the nine and the height for the five are roughly the same. That’s something that should happen if an election was conducted properly.
Unique Voting System in Papua
Seth: If you do that for the 2014 election, there are too many zeros, too many. There are like 15% more zeros than they are other numbers. And that shouldn’t happen. So I did this and was super excited and thought, “My god! I have discovered a massive fraudulent or mistake… something wild has happened!” This was the 2014 presidential election. I do this and it was actually embarrassing with how all this shook out. So where was this coming from? Papua. They were all coming from Papua province, a few from West Papua province as well. There’s some kind of conspiracy maybe that is going on in Papua. In some districts all the votes went to Prabowo and in some of the districts all the votes went to Jokowi. That was the sort of thing that I’ve observed. The zeros were all coming from places that every vote came from one candidate so the zero was being generated because the vote total was because the vote for the other candidate was also zero. It was not coming from like 150s or 160s, no it was coming from zero. So I got really excited and went to the National Political Science Association Conference and presented this. Something crazy is happening, mostly in Papua. And a very smart Australian political scientist happens to be there, I did not recognize who he was. His name was Ed Aspinall, a well-known author in political studies. He says, “This was very interesting, very clever. I think you discovered the noken system.”
Shawn:What is the noken system?
Seth: That’s what I asked. This was six years ago. I didn’t know anything really. I’m kind of like what is this noken system? Well, noken is a system where certain desa [village] in Papua are allowed to engage in communal voting. And the supreme court has ruled that this was possible. In a noken village, all the votes will go to one candidate and zero votes will go to the other candidate. I had basically reverse engineered… So, there’s some really interesting things that came out of that for me is that one, I needed to learn more about Indonesian elections but another thing is this kind of thing is called election forensics. They work! Because they are designed to detect things that deviate from the normal voting process. And noken absolutely deviates from the normal voting process. It is not the same thing as a regular election as we understand it. This system performed brilliantly at identifying places where the noken were in use.
Shawn:Are there any areas that use this unique voting process?
Seth: Some areas of Nias have been authorized to use it but I don’t think they use it. But there are apparently some places in Nias where the Court allowed them to do it if they wanted to. There were court cases, they were Papuans, that they wanted to have the same voting rights as everyone else. The court ruled that Papuan culture is special. The court often ruled for this sort of thing was done when Papuan culture is communal and so this is okay. They didn’t create any procedures for who in the village, which figure of authority will be able to cast the votes on behalf of everyone, so it has been a continuous source of conflict. But, one interesting note on that is that people in the noken villages have said only the places that are using the system or were using the system when the case was brought. I think the case was brought in 2015. Only places that were using that system can continue to use that system. But those individuals who live in those villages do not have the individual right to vote. So it is an interesting thing. The Court has basically ruled that people in certain villages in Papua don’t have the individual right to vote.
Shawn:Transitioning back to the legislative election, can you talk about that again and how you see the voting process. Is it transparent? You mentioned the difficulties with the presidential election and also the transparencies of the presidential election. What about the legislative elections?
Seth: Let me just say one more thing about the presidential elections, the last follow up on that forensic. When I took out Papua, or looked at places where the candidates received at least one vote, there was nothing weird going on with these numbers. As soon as you removed communal voting villages, either by just saying to not look at the ones where someone got zero or let’s cut out Papua or these parts that do noken, there is no weirdness in the election, other than slightly the same places where they have slightly the same votes for both candidates.
Shawn: If I recall correctly, during the Court case where Prabowo and his team faced the court in the hearing itself, I think this was raised. How could this massive coalition which Prabowo had at the time, not receive a single vote? Did they know about the noken process?
Seth: Yes. I think they challenged in four places, two of them were whole provinces and two of them were kabupaten or regions such as Madura, Nias Selatan, Papua and maybe West Papua had problems. Madura was always interesting to me because it always comes up. Madura is the source of the structured systematic massive standard; the Khofifah case in 2008. They ordered a revote in Madura and the three kabupaten of Madura. It was interesting that Madura is one of those places that Prabowo did well and they were saying they were fraud there, which seems like a dangerous play to me. The Court ordered extra scrutiny of the election where they did pretty well. Clearly, they thought they should’ve gotten a larger total than they did but they did very well in Madura. But they did raise these concerns in Papua. Of course, there are lots of villages in Papua where Prabowo got all the votes. But it was twice as many villages that Jokowi got all the votes.
I think we shouldn’t find that surprising because we know that non-muslims prefer Jokowi overwhelmingly and he did well in both elections. That’s a big part of what’s going on there. The point of this is basically that the presidential election is that we know from other countries like Nigeria, Russia, that there are all these statistical footprints that were left behind that are the result of the structure and the system that are being used to change the election result on a large scale. And none of those are present in Indonesian presidential elections.
Fraud in Legislative Elections
Seth: Now, in the legislative elections, it gets kind of interesting. Two things are kind of going on that make it more likely that there will be problems with fraud. When you’re thinking of ways you want to win an election, ways to say that you got more votes than someone else, there is a way to do it, which is to convince the people to vote for you and not for the other person. But if you think about let’s say you want to do tally fraud across the polling stations, the logistics of doing that are not simple. Just as logistics of campaigning across the archipelago are intensive and expensive. The logistics of getting enough people to be co-conspirators in a systematic way to change the results, they are far from trivial. That’s why that is what the big part of Golkar was doing in the Soeharto era was. It is not easy to produce the plausible two thirds majority. You need lots of people doing lots of work. So it’s not like you can have someone in Jakarta change a number, that doesn’t cut it because there’s so much oversight. Lots of people would notice and of course, that’s before you realize that lots of people inside the administration have integrity. The logistics are hard in a presidential race. If you think about what does it take to steal 15 million votes, that's not easy. If you really think about getting ballots that would reflect the desired result is almost as hard as doing the campaign itself.
In a legislative race, margins can be a lot smaller. There is an important study that comes from the Study of Electoral Fraud is that the smaller the margin, the more likely fraud would occur. If you would think about it in a classic incentives framework, is that what you are worried about when you engage in fraud and manipulation or you subvert the process in some way, is that the worry would be that you would get caught and you would get into trouble. What you are hoping to gain is the office that you are campaigning for and the larger votes that you have to acquire to get it, the more likely for you to be caught and the more expensive it is. The cost starts to not make sense. But in a DPRD II [District/Kabupaten legislature or assembly] race, you are winning over your rival over by a few thousand votes. Remember that your nearest rival in the competition is the best next person in your own party or the next better person in your own party.
The gap between the second place candidate and the first place candidate in most parties are pretty big but between the second and the third is not so big. And so there are lots of people sitting in the local legislature, who won their seat with just a few hundred more votes than someone else. And a few hundred votes are just two or three polling stations. So suddenly you can see the payoff getting a couple of polling stations to swing a few votes your way, it's a really big difference between the seat in the assembly and no seat in the assembly. And the odds of getting caught are actually smaller because we are talking about two to three polling stations. It might not happen in a polling station.
Fraud in the Presidential vs Legislative Election
Seth:The layout in the presidential level is a massive undertaking, literally a massive undertaking. It is one reason to doubt that it occurred in that way. Some people would say that the campaigning is illegitimate, or the state apparatus is being done inappropriately. That’s a little different from using 50 million stolen ballots. Those are not the same claim. In a legislature, the payoffs are huge and the odds of getting caught are small.
The other thing is that so many candidates repeat the same story about some kind of tally fraud that occurred. I’ve talked with a lot of different candidates who talked about this, the book that Ed Aspanill edited that goes through 34 races in each province, talks about this. Losing candidates frequently say that votes were moved from a candidate in their party to another. One of the main costs for running an office here is paying a witness to be in these polling stations and make sure votes are counted for you. If there is a polling station that you could not offered to pay for a witness to go out there for you, there is a decent chance that you did not get any votes from that polling station. I mean there is a decent chance that you get some votes from that polling station, but those votes may be registered to someone else in your party.
Problems of Intra-Party Vote Transfer
Shawn: Is the legislative election free and fair?
Seth: I would actually call it free, fair and transparent because what I mean is kind of specific. Does the KPU have appropriate rules and do they follow them? Are most people able to vote are able to vote? Yes, there is this problem of intra-party vote transfer and that’s really important, because of that proportional system where the seats go to the parties but within the parties, the seats go to the candidates in order of the votes they get. There’s not a lot of evidence where votes are being moved from one party to another. Even if there are witnesses that are not from every candidate, if a NasDem witness for Candidate No. 1 sees a ballot where someone gets from NasDem to PPP, for example, they’ll object even if that is not their candidate. If it is cross-party you can take it to court. It is really hard to take to court if it is intra-party claim.
So this is almost a universal story from losing candidates but there is a lot of evidence that this is going on. Winning candidates just don’t like to talk about it because they won and maybe this is also a part of the reason of how they won.
Shawn:Why did the Gerindra Party say that the legislative election was free and fair but that the presidential election wasn’t?
Seth: I think they were moderately satisfied with the election results that put them in third place and they didn’t see any gain from making the claim. But they are hitched to the Prabowo campaign wagon and they made a claim for the presidential election, I don’t think the Gerindra party is free to break with Prabowo on a claim like that.
Conclusions on Indonesian Election
Seth: I think Indonesian elections are quite well run. There’s not really evidence that large scale problems, or really small-scale problems with the presidential race. There are challenges that come from the logistical scale and there have been reforms that basically take into the fact that this is a hand-count system. Maybe they should separate the local elections with the national elections, and just have them on different days so the poll workers don’t have to work as hard. But in general, the counts are decent, and it is possible to get all the polling stations results from the internet. That’s not something easy to do in the United States or in Sweden for that matter.
In a lot of ways, the Electoral Commission’s transparency is above average for the world of developing countries. I do think the one area where people are messing around with these tallies are in the legislative elections, but I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for the claims that the legislative elections are broken, unfair and unfree. It is just the arena where people are up to a bit more mischief.