The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


Name of the book… and its coordinates?

Dov H. Levin 2020. Meddling in the Ballot Box: The Causes and Effects of Partisan Electoral interventions. New York: Oxford University Press

What’s the argument?

Why do great powers – like the United States and Russia – meddle in foreign elections? If you answered “when they care about the outcome” you’d be only partly right. Great powers are rarely indifferent to election results in other countries. But it takes more to make them consider actually interfering in an election. Great powers only take the plunge when policymakers believe that the results could threaten core security interests.

Motive isn’t enough, however. Great powers also need opportunity. They require help from local politicians – on their preferred side, of course – who can show them how to succeed. If great powers can’t find a local partner, they usually won’t bother to intervene. Why waste resources and risk negative publicity if there’s not much chance of success?

That may explain why great-power electoral interference often works: great powers only get involved when they are reasonably confident that they can make a difference. Great-power don’t always back winners but, more often than not, their efforts help secure victory for their preferred side.

This is especially true of overt interventions. When great powers try to keep their meddling a secret they limit the tools at their disposal – and the tools they give up tend to be among the most effective. They can’t, for example, attempt to bribe the electorate with offers of economic assistance, or make it clear that there will be repercussions if the ‘wrong’ side wins.

Why should we care?

There are many good reasons! Here are two:

  • Partisan electoral interventions are very common. They occurred in one out of every nine national-level elections between 1946 and 2000. The Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections was the norm in international politics, not the exception; great powers continue to meddle in foreign (and American) elections. To paraphrase Trotsky, even if you aren’t interested in partisan electoral interventions, it may nevertheless be interested in you.
  • Electoral interventions often do damage to the targets of interference (see below).

We should believe your argument because?

I draw on thousands of archival documents related to six actual and planned electoral interventions by the U.S. government. This allows me to trace the decision-making process about whether or not to intervene – as well as how to do so. I also constructed a new dataset on great-power electoral interventions between 1946-2000, which forms the backbone of my statistical analysis. I also draw in evidence from select election surveys from cases of interference. I also examine the Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. election, which played out pretty much how my argument expected that it would.

Why’d you decide to write the piece in the first place?

I’d been studying the topic since the early 2010s. I expected to publish articles on it, but I hadn’t really considered writing a book. After the Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections there was a wave of interest in similar kinds of foreign electoral interference – that is, that supports one side against the other. The articles that I wrote on the subject got a fair amount of attention. Writing a book made a lot of sense.

What would you most like to change about the book… and why?

If I had more space I’d include an additional chapter about how electoral interventions affect the target. Over the last few years, I’ve been further studying what happens to states that experience such meddling. I’m finding a lot of worrisome things.

Partisan interference by foreign powers is associated with democratic breakdown. Targets of such meddling see increases in domestic terrorism. I’d like to have included more on this in in the book.

The +1: How hard was it to get the book published?

The process of getting the book published involved many steps. I first had informal conversations with several university presses at the 2018 ISA Conference. That gave me a sense of who was interested in the book.

When I finished the book manuscript, I sent it to those publishers. Oxford University Press sent it out for review. After the reports came in, they offered me a contract. The Press made the whole process pretty straightforward.

Dov H. Levin is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. His main current research project is on the causes, effects, and effectiveness of partisan electoral interventions by great powers, a topic on which he has published multiple scholarly articles. The book described here has recently won the Robert Jervis & Paul Schroeder Best Book Award for 2021 by the American Political Science Association.

Posted on 3 August, 2021