Coup or No Coup? Conceptualizing the Capitol Attacks

Note: This is a guest post. Thank you to Matthew for the opportunity to once again contribute to Fruits and Votes, even for an unconventional post like this that does not deal with fruits and only tangentially mentions votes!

The events of January 6 at the US capitol were so shocking and unfamiliar to most Americans that experts’ reactions and understanding varied widely. Although many in the media settled on calling it an “insurrection” or a “riot”, academics’ interpretations seem to have run the gamut. Understanding the storming of the capitol as a “forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework”, Paul Musgrave referred to it as a “coup d’état”. Likewise, Amy Austin Holmes called it a “coup from below”, using terminology that characterizes at what level in the state security forces or society an overthrow attempt originates.

Other scholars pushed back against this interpretation. Erica de Bruin, Jonathan Powell, and Naunihal Singh all argued that the violent and anti-democratic attack does not fit the technical definition of a coup, since rioters did not appear to be part of any organized military or rebel organization. Clarifying his position in The Monkey Cage, Singh argued that “it is the involvement of state security forces that critically separates a coup attempt from an assassination, an invasion, an insurrection or a civil war”.

I agree with these scholars that it wasn’t a coup d’état attempt—at least in traditional sense of the term—but not necessarily for the same reason. After an extensive survey of the academic literature in a 2011 article in The Journal of Peace Research, Powell and Thyne  summarize the roughly consensual definition of a coup as “an illegal and overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive”. Much discussion subsequent to the capitol attacks has focused on a) whether the attempt was “illegal and overt” and b) focused on the absence of a military role. Nonetheless, it is clear that the objective was not to unseat the incumbent but to keep him in office despite having lost an election. Trump himself brazenly attempted to do this on January 2, when he pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to allow him to surpass Joe Biden’s total in that state.

Instead, my immediate reaction to the events of January 6 was that they resembled something that has happened in Latin America and a handful of other places that goes beyond mere “insurrection”: an autogolpe, or “self-coup”, in which a chief executive attempts to render powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers. In a conventional coup, some actor targets the chief executive; in a self-coup, the chief executive targets the legislature.

Other comparativists who study Latin America seem to have made the same observation: Max Cameron, Jennifer McCoy, and Javier Corrales, among others, all found that Donald Trump’s encouragement to protestors to take action against certifying the electoral college vote reflect an autogolpe attempt, or at least the early stages of one. Cameron would know; his 1998 Journal of Democracy article on self-coups in Peru, Russia, and Guatemala may be the seminal article on the topic.

It should be noted that Cameron adds a caveat to his classification of the capitol attack, adding, “all that was missing was the intervention of the armed forces”. However, if Powell and Thyne define the perpetrators of a conventional coup d’état as “the military or other elites”, than it follows that Republican politicians unwilling to vote to certify electoral college votes and encouraging protestors to enter the capitol building qualify as “other elites”.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that the terms autogolpe or self-coup suggest they are subtypes of coups, when it seems more likely that they refer to a discrete class of event.

In an e-mail exchange with Matthew, I said that I think Marsteintredet and Malamud (2019) do the best job of anyone at describing the conceptual differences between these terms in their article “Coup with Adjectives: Conceptual Stretching or Innovation in Comparative Research?”. They argue that while there are many ways to walk down the ladder of abstraction with coups (“coup d’état”, “military coup”, “democratic coup”, “non-democratic coup”, “neoliberal coup”, etc.), they see the term “autogolpe” as walking up that same ladder. They write:

Reminiscent of Naudé’s definition from the seventeenth century, the modern self-coup or autogolpe is a more troublesome concept. Although illegal and supported by force or the threat of force, and also perpetrated by state actors, the autogolpe—which has also been called a constitutional or a presidential coup (Helmke, 2017; Roberts, 1995; Varol, 2017: 30)—changes the target from the head of government to other state institutions such as congress or the judiciary.

After more discussion, they conclude that to avoid conceptual confusion, a more appropriate term may be “incumbent takeover”, a term used by Milan Svolik to refer to leaders who use their democratic mandate “to underminekey tenets of democracy, most often by abolishing or manipulating elections”. In fact, Svolik specifically refers to Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru in 1992 as a quintessential example of an incumbent takeover. At the same time, Marsteintredet and Malamud recognize the auto-golpe or self-coup has gained academic ground and is referred to regularly in the press. 

Ultimately, I think “insurrection” is a far more apt description than “attempted coup”. But as evidence continues to emerge about the high degree of coordination before the capitol attacks as well as the targets of those attacks, I think “self-coup attempt” and certainly “incumbent takeover” better capture the process.

What do others think?

Ecuador’s 2019 Local Elections

On March 24, 2019, Ecuador held sectional elections to elect 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 867 city councilors, 438 rural councilors, 4,089 members of rural parish councils, and seven councilors of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), a social regulatory body. The elections had a little bit of everything: complex electoral rules and a mixture of systems, bickering over how to count votes, and results that reinforce what political scientists know about electoral systems’ impacts on party systems. I was fortunate enough to observe these elections as part of the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission (EOM). Given that the EOM’s final report was finally presented to the OAS Permanent Council until June 19, 2020, I can now offer some political science-based reflections on the experience. 

I’ll describe the array of electoral rules and then highlight three noteworthy factors:

  1. the difficulty in counting null votes in a plurality-at-large election;
  2. the political party atomization that “pluralitarian” and free list proportional representation produced; and
  3. the persistence of ballot order effects in plurality-at-large elections, even with order randomization.

It should be noted that Ecuadorian legislators finally passed a bill in December 2019 to switch from free list PR to closed and blocked lists for multi-member elections, among other changes.

Electoral Systems

Since 1998, elections in Ecuador have been cognitively demanding due to the complexity of the electoral lists and rules governing voting.  2019 was no exception. Despite being a national process, not all voters cast the same number of votes or even used the same number of ballots: voters in urban areas received six ballots to elect representatives at four levels of government (prefect, mayor, urban councilor, CPCCS representatives), while voters in rural areas received seven ballots for five levels of government (prefect, mayor, rural councilor, rural parish boards, CPCCS representatives). Moreover, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) employed three different electoral systems across these five different offices:

  1. Prefects: First-past-the-post
  2. Mayors: First-past-the-post
  3. Urban and rural canton councils: Free list PR (5 ≤ M ≤ 15)
  4. Rural parish councils: Free list PR (M=5 or 7)
  5. CPCCS (three different ballots): Plurality-at-large, Plurality-at-large, First-past-the-post

The free list, which Tom Mustillo and I have written about and which is sometimes called “panachage” or “open ballot”, is a unique variation of the open list where voters can: 1) cast preference votes for candidates; 2) cast multiple preference votes; and 3) distribute preferences across multiple lists. Alternatively, voters can cast a single list vote. To determine seat distribution, votes are pooled at the party list level (an important detail that distinguishes the free list from plurality-at-large). For national legislative elections, only Switzerland, Luxembourg, Honduras, and El Salvador now use this system, although it is more common at a subnational level in Europe. This system presents a number of complexities for voters (since there are so many candidates from which to choose and so many votes to cast) as well as vote counters (because each voter’s number of votes varies by district magnitude and voters are not required to cast all their votes).

There is a lot of “choice” available to voters.  Here is a 2019 ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito with M=5 that demonstrates it nicely. Voters in this district are allowed to cast up to five votes within or across the 22 party lists, or five out of 110 total candidates.  It is no surprise that voters often opt for list votes (plancha, in Spanish) or use only a portion of their preference votes.

Figure 1. Ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito

 

Still, Ecuadorian voters should have been accustomed to the free list: before legislators phased in out in late 2019 in favor of closed lists, voters had been using it for 17 years in both national and local elections.

Being tapped with the civic responsibility of working a polling station is a lot of work for elections like these. Poll workers had to tally votes manually, recording not just the choices on six or seven ballots, but counting all M votes on the free list ballots and finding the three choices on the men’s and women’s CPCCS ballots as well (something I explain in greater depth below). The four-person team at the table I was assigned to “quick count” took more than seven hours to tally all of their 250-300 voters’ votes (see the photo below as they were just beginning).

Figure 2. Poll workers sorting ballots before counting votes

 

1. Counting Null Votes under Plurality-at-Large

Despite the complexities of the free list, the most compelling ballot in this election turned out to be the one used to elect CPCCS representatives.  After a 2018 plebiscite turned this appointed seven-person body into an elected one, electors were supposed to be given seven votes to be distributed however they wanted across the entire ballot (e.g. plurality-at-large/MNTV/block voting). However, in February 2019, the CNE stipulated that to maintain gender parity and minority representation, it would divide the single ballot into three separate ballots:

  • A “men’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large);
  • A “women’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large), and;
  • A ballot with indigenous/Afro-descendent/ex-pat candidates, from which voters could cast one vote (SMD plurality).

How to count the votes—or in this case, the non-votes—dominated pre-election discourse.

The CPCCS is an autonomous entity responsible for appointing authorities of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Comptroller General of the State, and state superintendencies, as well as influencing the designation of certain electoral and judicial authorities.  Many politicians and civil society organizations long decried the CPCCS and argued that it should be eliminated as a political body.

Paragraph 3 of Article 147 of Ecuador’s Code of Democracy states that elections can be nullified, “when the null votes exceed the totality of the candidates’ votes, of the respective lists, in a specific circumscription, for each office”. Predictably, there was a current of public opinion in these elections that exhorted voters to cast a null vote as a way to protest the body and demand a national plebiscite on its existence. However, counting the null votes for an office where the voter can cast up to seven votes between three ballots turned out to be more complicated than it may first appear.

Specifically, there is no way to satisfy the “one person, one vote” principal stipulated in the Ecuadorian Constitution if electoral authorities count votes instead of ballots. There are two basic scenarios:

  • Scenario 1 (original proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to a single vote, meaning that a null voter is only able to cast 3/7 of a null vote (1/7 + 1/7 + 1/7 on each of the three ballots) while a valid voter can cast 7/7 of a vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7)—effectively disenfranchising the null voter.
  • Scenario 2 (counter-proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to three null votes. This way, both valid and null voters get to exercise a full vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 in each case). The problem is, the system does not permit cumulation voting, which means a) that the null voter is effectively casting three cumulation votes while a valid voter cannot do the same thing; and b) that anyone using fewer than M valid votes per list ends up using fewer votes than the null voter (e.g. a single blank on the first ballot would give the voter 2/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 = 6/7 of a vote).

Electoral authorities were divided on the interpretation, but eventually settled on the first counting rule. Regardless, the null counting method would not have mattered, since just over 20% of the ballots registered null votes against 50% of valid votes (more than 20% of the ballot for CPCCS were also left blank). 

2. Personal Voting and Party System Atomization

Low entrance barriers and guaranteed public financing gave rise to the participation of a whopping 278 political parties, movements, and local organizations. However, all three electoral systems also incentivize the personal vote at the expense of the party. The results were predictable, with extreme party system fragmentation and a lack of mandate for most elected officials.

To just take the FPTP elections, 19 different parties and 10 local political movements split up the 23 prefectures (most of them as part of electoral alliances), with the Social Christian Party winning the most with eight (35%).  Eight parties or movements won just a single prefecture.

There was greater atomization at the level of the elections for mayor. There, 42 parties or movements gained political representation in the 221 mayoralties. Sixteen different political parties won ten or more mayoralties, with the most successful party, the Social Christian Party, earning just 43 mayoralties nationwide (19.5% of the national total). The largest party in the preceding twelve years, President Lenín Moreno’s Alianza Pais (“Country Alliance”), managed only 27 mayors nationwide, falling to the fourth position at national level. The excess of municipal and provincial movements led to the formation of various electoral alliances; in fact, multi-party electoral coalitions won 112 of the 221 mayoralties.

These results suggest that without significant changes, the 2021 general elections are likely to be contested by a panoply of parties with weak roots and limited national ambitions, akin to what we see in some other Latin American countries, like Peru.

3. Ballot Order Effects

A third interesting pattern to emerge was a ballot order effect for the CPCCS elections.  Recognizing the advantage that candidates near the top of the ballot hold over those placed toward the bottom, the CNE decided candidate placement on each of the three CPCCS ballots in February 2019 via lottery, on national television and in the presence of a public notary.

The 28-candidate men’s CPCCS ballot looked like this, with the women’s ballot and minorities’ ballot organized a similar way:

Figure 3. The CPCCS ballot for men

 

Despite the lottery, which quite literally randomized candidate placement, there is evidence that candidates towards the top of list enjoyed a distinct advantage over those toward the bottom. The figure below is a scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes. Red circles represent women candidates (11 nominations), squares are the men candidates (28 nominations), and the diamonds the minority candidates (4 nominations); for each list, I also included the best fit line to show the relationship between ballot position and votes received. In all three cases, there is a clear negative relationship.

Figure 4. Scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes

 

This relationship is statistically significant for two of the three lists (men and women; there were only four candidates on the third list). To test the relationship suggested in the figure, I ran a linear regression of the effect of candidate on electoral performance. Employing list fixed effects, the results are consistent with the scatterplot. For each change in position, the mean CPCCS candidate lost around 18,126 votes (p<0.05), or a total of 507,528 votes (18,126) over the range of the 28 positions on the men’s list.  Despite placement randomization, then, this vote is just one more example of the pervasiveness of ballot placement effects; given financial and technical constraints (e.g. inability to randomize candidate placement for each paper ballot), it’s hard to imagine how the CNE could have avoided this problem.

Sectional elections in a small country like Ecuador are not often on the radar of international analysts.  However, the multitude of electoral systems, debate over null vote counting, and ballot order effectd make it as compelling a case study as many national elections in larger countries that grab international headlines.