Allegations of electoral fraud – when the result doesn’t suit


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Status: 11.06.2024 14:51

Before the election, some AfD-affiliated users on X suspected election manipulation. Now these accusations have largely died down. The Federal Returning Officer registered no irregularities – experts recognize a structure.

By Laura Bisch and Pascal Siggelkow, ARD-faktenfinder editorial team

“Structured manipulation,” “serious irregularities and electoral fraud to the detriment of the AfD”: Even before the ballot papers for the European elections had been counted, some AfD-affiliated users on social networks were already sensing a major scandal. The accusation: election workers were manipulating the results in such a way that the AfD’s share of the vote would end up being lower than it actually was.

After the first projections, which showed the AfD as one of the election winners, the allegations of fraud decreased. Some claimed that the AfD would have received even more votes without the alleged manipulation and that the results were still being “tweaked and tweaked” to keep the party as small as possible. However, there was no major outcry.

“By claiming that there was election fraud, people can try to distract from the scandals that occurred in the run-up to the election,” says Sarah Shiferaw, adult education trainer in the field of disinformation at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Germany (ISD). “On the other hand, people are doing it with foresight in case the results don’t turn out the way they hoped.” When the results turned out to be right, these voices of election fraud simply fell silent.

Election manipulation on a grand scale unlikely

Right-wing populist circles also suspected electoral fraud in the recent local elections in Thuringia. The AfD district administrator candidate Heiko Philipp Criminal complaint for defamation He is said to have written in a Telegram group that left-wing circles were conspiring to commit electoral fraud. After the district election in the Saale-Orla district in February, AfD politician Gunnar Lindemann wrote on X that it was anyone’s guess whether the election had been democratic. After state elections, the hashtag electoral fraud is regularly trending.

There can always be minor irregularities in elections, says political scientist Gabriele Abels. However, she believes that large-scale election manipulation is unlikely in Germany. The established security mechanisms in elections make it “rather difficult” to manipulate the vote. The four-eyes principle applies to the counting, there are control counts and documentation obligations for election helpers.

Nevertheless, the Berlin election showed “what can go wrong”. In the September 2021 election, in addition to incorrect and missing ballot papers, there were too few ballot boxes – some polling stations were closed and voters had to queue for hours. The election ultimately had to be repeated.

Abels believes that the claim that election workers may have intentionally invalidated AfD ballot papers in the European and local elections is false. “Given that election workers are never and should never be alone with the ballot boxes or ballot papers – neither during the vote nor during the counting – that is difficult to imagine.”

No reports about Attempts at manipulation

This was also confirmed by Federal Returning Officer Ruth Brand. In response to a request from ARD-factfinders she wrote that the campaign on X was false information. The European elections were safe. There were no “known irregularities with regard to the election committees”. The election helpers were obliged to carry out their voluntary work impartially and to check each other, the reply continued. “Any deviation from the legally binding regulations would therefore be noticed.”

Postal voting in the focus of the AfD

Right-wing and conspiracy-ideological circles are constantly stirring up sentiment against postal voting in particular. The AfD, for example, before the federal election in 2021 distributed a graphic with the slogan “Put it in yourself!” to motivate their own voters to vote on election day and not to use postal voting – because of the supposed vulnerability to election manipulation.

Shiferaw explains this by saying that the process is less transparent for voters than voting at the ballot box. “On election day, you can observe the election. So if you feel unsafe as a citizen, you can watch,” she says. “With postal voting, I put my letter in the mailbox and it’s gone. I’m probably not there when the votes are counted. I think that’s why stories like this about election fraud are so common.”

Political scientist Abels believes that postal voting is at least more susceptible to fraud, as “it is less likely that the person has filled out the ballot paper themselves or – if they need assistance – can check how it is filled out.” According to Abels, postmen can also embezzle and destroy voting documents, for example in party strongholds.

Added to this is the fact that the willingness to vote by mail has so far been developed to varying degrees across the parties. According to Abels, voters of the Greens and the Left are more likely to use postal voting than those of the conservative parties. As a result, the counting of postal votes often causes the results to change to the detriment of right-wing and conservative parties.

Federal Returning Officer Brand disagrees. Postal voting is just as democratically legitimate and just as safe as voting at the polling station, she writes. And: The Federal Constitutional Court has declared postal voting to be constitutional in several decisions. In addition, the postal voting board negotiates, deliberates and makes decisions in public. Therefore, everyone has the right to be present from the time the postal voting board meets – i.e. when it opens the ballot papers.

Accusation more common in right-wing or populist circles

But it is not just the postal vote that is being questioned in right-wing populist and right-wing extremist circles, but also the vote counting. In previous elections, both the AfD and the right-wing extremist association Ein Prozent called on people to register as election observers in order to monitor the election process. According to “Correctiv” research, the meeting near Potsdam also discussed how the election result could be systematically questioned in the upcoming federal election.

Political scientist Abels observes the accusation of election manipulation more in “right-wing or populist circles”. She also suspects that the accusations are increasing – which could be due to the spread of social media, “which are ideal for these accusations”. “And we must not underestimate the interest of authoritarian states – especially Russia and China – in interfering in democratic processes.” These states also have targeted disinformation campaigns.

Strategy also known abroad

The AfD is pursuing a similar strategy to many other right-wing populist politicians around the world. One of the pioneers is probably former US President Donald Trump. Before the 2016 election, he had already spoken of mass electoral fraud in the interests of his then rival Hilary Clinton. After his victory, he only questioned the numbers of the so-called popular votes, i.e. the direct votes for the candidates, which are not decisive in the USA due to the electoral system with the electoral college.

While Trump was ahead in the decisive electoral votes, two million more people voted for Democrat Clinton. He did not provide any evidence of the alleged electoral fraud, and a commission he himself set up to investigate electoral fraud was dissolved without any results. Before the 2020 election, Trump rehashed allegations of alleged electoral fraud in the run-up to the vote.

The now-defeated president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, also used the strategy. In Brazil, the constant doubts about the electoral process led to his supporters protesting against the result. Bolsonaro has not provided any evidence for his claim.

“Huge problem for democracy”

Shiferaw considers the tactic of fundamentally questioning the election process and the results to be very dangerous: “On the one hand, it can lead to people losing their trust in political processes and therefore not voting.” This is a huge problem for democracy. “On the other hand, something like this can lead to radicalization among supporters, who then do not accept the election result and resort to violence, as was the case during the storming of the Capitol in the USA.”

Shiferaw therefore hopes that there will be more information about the election process, for example – also with regard to the rights of voters. Every citizen can observe the election process and the counting of votes. In addition, in Germany every eligible voter can Submit an objection to an election to the election officerIn a federal election, the Bundestag then decides on the objections and whether they are justified. If a voter is not satisfied with the decision, he or she can still file a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court.

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