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Assessing The Historic Pitfalls of One of Democracy’s Best Tools

Nov 09, 2021 |

A cornerstone of democratic elections, the effective secret ballot—commonly referred to as the Australian ballot—dates back to its introduction in 1861 in the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia. The Australian ballot was adopted by European countries and the United States in response to a growing recognition that voters’ rights to free and fair elections should be protected. Yet, as an award-winning article by the University of Virginia’s Daniel Gingerich explains, the same tool designed to encourage democratic elections by protecting the freedom of individual voters was counterintuitively weaponized historically by Brazilian elites to actually make it harder for poor and illiterate citizens of the South American country to vote.

An associate professor of politics and director of UVA’s Quantitative Collaborative, Gingerich was honored this fall with the American Political Science Association’s Luebbert Prize for the best article in comparative politics published in the last two years. In praising his findings, the judges said his historical research has important ramifications for the study of contemporary democratic institutions. Documenting how a watershed innovation in democratic elections was used to restrict the voting power of the most marginalized communities, Gingerich’s American Journal of Political Science paper offers defenders of democratic institutions a roadmap to preventing similar attempts in the future.

Dan Gingerich, professor of politics and director of UVA’s Quantitative Collaborative, Gingerich was honored this fall with the American Political Science Association’s Luebbert Prize.

“The contemporary patterns or lessons unfortunately couldn't be more salient, which is the experience that we observed in Brazil. Sometimes, electoral reforms which are publicly touted as perfecting the democratic process, as making it less prone to corruption, as making it less prone to fraud, are actually operating as wolves in sheep's clothing, so to speak,” Gingerich said.

Analyzing municipal-level electoral returns in Brazil from the 1950s and ‘60s, Gingerich shed light on how elites intentionally used the new Australian ballot to control elections. His research drew on archival studies and historical accounts of the political reform process in Brazil. It also applied 21st-century quantitative analysis to his original historical data, which illuminated how the design of the secret ballot system in Brazil disenfranchised poor, uneducated voters.

Voting was intentionally made difficult for individuals with low levels of education. Brazilian voters in the elections examined by Gingerich needed to be able to legibly write in the name of their preferred candidate or a four- or five-digit number representing a candidate.

“So if you have a large number of voters that are functionally illiterate, that is very hard to do. And Brazil’s electoral authorities and the politicians who pushed for the secret ballot knew that and they designed the secret ballot that way because they anticipated that poor rural voters would not be able to vote, using a ballot which required them to be able to read and write,” Gingerich said. “It was entirely by design that you got a large disenfranchisement of poor, illiterate, rural voters in Brazil. … Voters were bewildered by the ballot and just submitted blank ballots or made errors in in the voting process. And so you had a huge number of wasted votes in the Brazilian case.”

Gingerich’s paper alludes to the Jim Crow-era efforts to restrict Black voting in the American South serving in part as a model for these Brazilian elite efforts to restrict voting.

“We think of the Australian ballot as the effective secret ballot, and in fact what happened in the U.S. South was that the Australian ballot was introduced as part of the larger process of Jim Crow reforms after Reconstruction for similar reasons. It was introduced in the U.S. South explicitly to disenfranchise African Americans, because it was known that there were very high levels of illiteracy among African Americans at the time, and they would not be able to use the ballot. … So there are some very interesting parallels with the historical experience of the U.S. South, and the linking mechanism here is literacy. Where there are low levels of effective literacy the secret ballot can be used as an instrument of strategic disenfranchisement to benefit some political forces and to weaken others. That’s what happened in in the U.S. South, and that's what happened in Brazil.”

Gingerich began researching the topic before the creation of the UVA Democracy Initiative research lab that he co-directs with Sandip Sukhtankar, Associate Professor of Economics. Gingerich, however, credits their Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law (CLEAR) with helping to secure and propel research collaborations that made the award-winning paper possible, as well as other significant research efforts.

“One of the points that comes out of this project, which is at the heart of the investigations of the CLEAR Lab, is that democratic development and democratization is a process, not a moment. Democratic consolidation occurs over time, and it can be reversed. So, by drawing from examples and data that are available in history in different contexts around the world, we can shine a better light on to how democracies survive and thrive, and sadly also how democracy is eroded in various contexts. This paper contributes to that overarching mission of our lab.”

Last year, Gingerich co-authored a paper with then postdoctoral research associate Jan Vogler (now an assistant professor at the University of Konstanz) assessing the lasting political legacy of the 14th century’s “Black Death” pandemic in the European region that is now Germany. They revisited their findings in a June 10 column that they wrote for The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” political science blog, relating how the Black Death and other devastating pandemics can profoundly change how political power is distributed in society. That led to appearances on national news broadcasts and interviews with prominent newspapers and other media outlets, as well as a follow-up Politico article written by Gingerich and Voger this week about the lessons of the Black Death for COVID's economic consequences today.

“That’s been a real shining point for our lab,” Gingerich said. “The CLEAR Lab has been able to produce a great deal of outward-facing research fairly quickly, which is uncommon in an academic environment. For many of these projects we wouldn’t have the time and resources to invest in them were it not for the Democracy Initiative and the lab.”

One of Gingerich’s ongoing major CLEAR Lab projects, in collaboration with two colleagues from UVA’s Department of Economics, assistant professor Shan Aman-Rana and fellow CLEAR Lab co-director Sandip Sukhtankar, is a wide-ranging study of how federal relief funding has been distributed in the United States by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known more commonly as the CARES Act. Working with a full-time data journalist and a data specialist, Gingerich, Aman-Rana and Sukhtankar are researching the distribution of funds through the CARE Act’s Paycheck Protection Program for small U.S. businesses.

“Part of the CLEAR Lab’s mission is to try to identify what contributes to ‘good government.’ Specifically in the U.S context, we have an enormous an enormous data set including every loan that was allocated as part of the Paycheck Protection program, and we’re trying to better understand the determinants of success and failure in that program and to try and get a better sense of how fair that program was, who benefited and who did not benefit so much,” Gingerich said. “I think you will be seeing exciting things from us in this future on this particular project.”

With the resources of the Democracy Initiative and the University’s $100 million investment in the study, teaching and promotion of democracy through the new Karsh Institute of Democracy announced last summer, UVA researchers are taking on similarly ambitious projects, Gingerich added.

“It’s an extremely exciting moment now to be studying democracy at the University of  Virginia,” he said.