Some election wins aren’t what they seem


When the election is over and a winner is declared, the margin of victory can tell you a lot.

Consider these examples:

Graphic showing winning electoral margins for six politicians (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

Open elections encourage opposition. While a decisive victory in the popular vote can demonstrate a strong mandate from voters for the winner’s agenda, too big a victory calls into question the legitimacy of the entire election.

Whether the winner is one leader or the party he or she represents, an election’s integrity depends on voters’ access to information about candidates and voters’ ability to freely choose from among the candidates.

Irfan Nooruddin, a professor at Georgetown University who studies elections around the world, said elections in which candidates win by nearly 100 percent — or “super margins” — usually signal an authoritarian ruler is suppressing opposition.

These days, Nooruddin said, that suppression usually takes the form of opposition candidates being harassed and intimidated before Election Day and being restricted from access to campaign funds and news media.

Thanks to the work of international election monitors, Nooruddin said, “Election Day integrity is higher than it’s been in decades.” But the increased attention on Election Day transparency has “forced would-be autocrats to move the manipulation to before the election.”

Tactics such as jailing opposition leaders, criminalizing peaceful protest and cracking down on social media in the run-up to an election undermine the legitimacy of the election before the polls even open. “When the observers aren’t present,” Nooruddin said, “that’s when democracy becomes vulnerable.”

Some democracies employ parliamentary systems, which frequently require parties to form coalitions when no single party commands majority support. For instance:

  • Germany’s 2017 election saw Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union win the highest percentage of votes with 33 percent.
  • Israel’s Likud party won that country’s 2015 legislative election with only 23.4 percent of the vote.
  • Japan’s Liberal Democratic party stayed in power after the 2017 general election with 33.28 percent of the vote.

In anticipation of Venezuela’s 2018 election, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said free and fair elections “must include the full participation of political parties and political leaders, a proper electoral calendar, credible international observation and an independent electoral authority.”