Signaling Democratic Progress through Electoral System Reform in Post-Communist States

AuthorWilliam O’Brochta,Patrick Cunha Silva
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 10371050
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211043865
Signaling Democratic Progress through
Electoral System Reform in
Post-Communist States
William OBrochta
and Patrick Cunha Silva
The international community invests heavily in democracy promotion, but these efforts sometimes embolden leaders not
interested in true democratic reform. We develop and test a formal model explaining why this occurs in the context of
electoral system reformone of the most important signals of democratic quality. Our formal model characterizes
leaders as either truly reform minded or pseudo-reformers, those who increase electoral system proportionality in
order to receive international community benef‌its while engaging in electoral fraud. We hypothesize that the inter -
national community will be more (less) likely to detect fraud when leaders decrease (increase) proportionality, regardless
of whether there is evidence of numerical fraud. Using a mixed-methods approach with cross-national and case study
data from post-Communist states, we f‌ind that the international community is generally less likely to detect fraud
following an increase in proportionality and vice versa. We suggest that democracy promoters over-reward perceived
democratic progress such that pseudo-reformers often benef‌it.
proportionality, electoral fraud, electoral system reform, democracy promotion, post-Communist states
Democratic governments and non-governmental organi-
zations spend billions of dollars each year promoting
democracy in developing nations. Despite the time, en-
ergy, and money that the international community pours
into democracy promotion, these efforts have produced
mixed results (e.g., Goldsmith, 2008). Indeed, scholars
have identif‌ied cases where democracy promotion results
in unintended consequences that enable recipient country
leaders to obtain benef‌its from the international com-
munity without making serious democratic progress (e.g.,
Asunka et al., 2019). How and why do these unintended
consequences come about? We develop and test the
predictions of a formal model that captures the conditions
under which democracy promotion results in no true
democratic progress.
While the international community invests in a wide
range of democracy promotion strategies, elections are of
particular interest (Carothers, 2009), as substantial de-
mocratization of the electoral process enables the de-
velopment of strong opposition parties, helping to ensure
long-term political change. We focus on reforms that
change the proportionality of electoral systems.
reforms are visible to members of the international
community: changing electoral rules typically involves a
constitutional amendment, legislative approval, or exec-
utive order. More importantly, proportionality reforms are
common. Crisp and Cunha Silva (2020) show that be-
tween 1980 and 2018, Latin American countries reformed
their electoral systems 44 times.
The international community has long backed reform
efforts to increase electoral system proportionality and
seemingly places weight on whether country leaders do so
(e.g., Tomini, 2014). Leaders perceived as democratizing
stand to gain from international organizations who value
democracy promotion. Even weak signs of democratic
progresslike institutional rules changescan generate
increased international goodwill, favorable electoral ob-
servation reports, and foreign aid (Dimitrova and
Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA, USA
Washington University in St Louis, St Louis, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
William OBrochta, Louisiana Tech University, 1308 West Railroad
Avenue, Ruston, LA 71272, USA.

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