Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading

Lessons from a Pathbreaking DfID Anticorruption Project in Tanzania

Britain’s Department for International Development is funding thoughtful, ambitious projects in Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda to help those governments step up the enforcement of national anticorruption laws.  What makes the three thoughtful is their recognition that improving anticorruption law enforcement requires the simultaneous strengthening of the entire criminal justice chain – from the entities that turn up possible corruption violations to the agencies which investigate these leads to prosecution services and courts – together with measures to improve  collaboration among them.  What makes the three projects ambitious is that they provide assistance from one end of the chain to another;  building capacity in a single agency can be challenge, building it in several simultaneously even more so.

Yet if developing countries are to do better at catching, prosecuting, and convicting corrupt officials and those who corrupt them, more programs like these three, whether donor- or self-funded, are needed.  It does no good to improve the ability of an anticorruption agency to investigate corruption if prosecutors don’t have the skill to present a convincing case.  And no matter how skilled the prosecution, it will be for naught if the courts don’t understand the law or the evidence.

The 4 ½ year, £11.3 million Tanzania project, dubbed “STACA” for Strengthening Tanzania’s Anticorruption Action, was the first of the three DfID projects to tackle the criminal justice chain in one fell swoop, and along with the U4 Anticorruption Resource Center and REPOA, a Tanzanian think-tank, I reviewed its progress at roughly the half- way mark in implementation.  While we trust close study of the review is merited, below I summarize three points that came out of it that I think are particularly critical, both for developing country policymakers looking for ways to enhance the enforcement of their nation’s anticorruption laws and for donor organizations wanting to help them. Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 1

Well, between the ICIJ release of the searchable Panama Papers/Offshore Leaks database, the impeachment of President Rousseff in Brazil, and the London Anticorruption Summit, last week was quite a busy week in the world of anticorruption. There’s far too much to write about, and I’ve barely had time to process it all, but let me try to start off by focusing a bit more on the London Summit. I know a lot of our readers have been following it closely (and many participated), but quickly: The Summit was an initiative by David Cameron’s government, which brought together leaders and senior government representatives from over 40 countries to discuss how to move forward in the fight against global corruption. Some had very high hopes for the Summit, others dismissed it as a feel-good political symbolism, and others were somewhere in between.

Prime Minister Cameron stirred things up a bit right before the Summit started by referring to two of the countries in attendance – Afghanistan and Nigeria – as “fantastically corrupt,” but the kerfuffle surrounding that alleged gaffe has already received more than its fair share of media attention, so I won’t say more about it here, except that it calls to mind the American political commentator Michael Kinsley’s old chestnut about how the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.) I’m going to instead focus on the main documents coming out of the Summit: The joint Communique issued by the Summit participants, and the individual country statements. There’s already been a lot of early reaction to the Communique—some fairly upbeat, some quite critical (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). A lot of the Communique employs fairly general language, and a lot of it focuses on things like strengthening enforcement of existing laws, improving international cooperation and information exchange, supporting existing institutions and conventions, and exploring the creation of new mechanisms. All that is fine, and some of it might actually turn out to be consequential, but to my mind the most interesting parts of the Communique are those that explicitly announce that intention of the participating governments to take pro-transparency measures in four specific areas:

  1. Gathering more information on the true beneficial owners of companies (and possibly other legal entities, like trusts), perhaps through a central public registry—which might be available only to law enforcement, or which might be made available to the general public (see Communique paragraph 4).
  2. Increasing transparency in public contracting, including making public procurement open by default, and providing usable and timely open data on public contracting activities (see Communique paragraph 9). (There’s actually a bit of an ambiguity here. When the Communique calls for public procurement to be “open by default,” it could be referring to greater transparency, or it could be calling for the use of open bidding processes to increase competition. Given the surrounding context, it appears that the former meaning was intended. The thrust of the recommendation seems to be increasing procurement transparency rather than increasing procurement competition.)
  3. Increasing budget transparency through the strengthening of genuinely independent supreme audit institutions, and the publication of these institutions’ findings (see Communique paragraph 10).
  4. Strengthening protections for whistleblowers and doing more to ensure that credible whistleblower reports prompt follow-up action from law enforcement (see Communique paragraph 13).

Again, that’s far from all that’s included in the Communique. But these four action areas struck me as (a) consequential, and (b) among the parts of the Communique that called for relatively concrete new substantive action at the domestic level. So, I thought it might be a useful (if somewhat tedious) exercise to go through each of the 41 country statements to see what each of the Summit participants had to say in each of these four areas. This is certainly not a complete “report card,” despite the title of this post, but perhaps it might be a helpful start for others out there who are interested in doing an assessment of the extent of actual country commitments on some of the main action items laid out in the Communique. So, here goes: a country-by-country, topic-by-topic, quick-and-dirty summary of what the Summit participants declared or promised with respect to each of these issues. (Because this is so long, I’m going to break the post into two parts. Today I’ll give the info for Afghanistan–Malta, and Thursday’s post will give the info for Mexico–United States). Continue reading

Ridding the Courts of Corrupt Judges: Ghana Takes the First Step

Last week Ghanaians awoke to depressing news.  A team of investigative reporters revealed they had 500 plus hours of video tapes showing High Court judges and lower court magistrates accepting payoffs to acquit defendants in cases ranging from robbery and murder to bribery itself.  (Click here, here, and here for news accounts.) For Ghana, this is bad news, very bad news: dangerous criminals remain at large; some innocent individuals may have been jailed because they didn’t pay off a judge; and whatever confidence citizens may have had in the courts has been shattered.

But the initial reports contain some very good news as well.  The government is taking forceful and responsible action to cleanse a critical state institution of corruption. In accordance with article 146 of the Ghanaian Constitution, Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood has established a committee to examine the allegations against each judge and advise Ghanaian President Mahama whether he should remove any of them from office per the constitutional test of “stated misbehavior.”  At the same time, the Attorney General has announced his intention to prosecute judges, magistrates, and their accomplices for bribery and related crimes.

The scandal is similar in many ways to the one that engulfed Chicago’s courts in the 1980s, recounted in a Foreign Policy article flagged here last week.  As in Ghana, the Chicago cases arose from secret tape recordings showing judges fixing cases for money.  Like the Chicago judges caught on tape, some of those implicated in the Ghanaian scandal claim the taping violated the sanctity of the judicial chambers and evidence from them should therefore not be heard in any legal proceeding.  And, as in Chicago, many in Ghana are urging that those who bribed their way out of a criminal case be re-tried before an honest judge.

As the Ghanaian scandal unfolds difference between it and the one in Chicago will emerge, but some issues will be the same, and it may help Ghanaian authorities and citizens to know about Chicago’s experience. Probably most useful is the reasoning American courts relied upon to overcome the defense of double jeopardy when prosecutors sought to retry those defendant who had paid a judge to acquit them. Continue reading