What the numbers say: A digit-based test for election fraud

Bernd Beber, Alexandra Scacco

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Is it possible to detect manipulation by looking only at electoral returns? Drawing on work in psychology, we exploit individuals' biases in generating numbers to highlight suspicious digit patterns in reported vote counts. First, we show that fair election procedures produce returns where last digits occur with equal frequency, but laboratory experiments indicate that individuals tend to favor some numerals over others, even when subjects have incentives to properly randomize. Second, individuals underestimate the likelihood of digit repetition in sequences of random integers, so we should observe relatively few instances of repeated numbers in manipulated vote tallies. Third, laboratory experiments demonstrate a preference for pairs of adjacent digits, which suggests that such pairs should be abundant on fraudulent return sheets. Fourth, subjects avoid pairs of distant numerals, so those should appear with lower frequency on tainted returns. We test for deviations in digit patterns using data from Sweden's 2002 parliamentary elections, Senegal's 2000 and 2007 presidential elections, and previously unavailable results from Nigeria's 2003 presidential election. In line with observers' expectations, we find substantial evidence that manipulation occurred in Nigeria as well as in Senegal in 2007.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)211-234
    Number of pages24
    JournalPolitical Analysis
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - 2012

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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