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Only a handful of institutions in the United States are lucky enough to host area studies centers that focus on the post-communist region, and the Skalny Center is one of the best, so the chance to conduct my research this year at the Center has been a special privilege. I joined the Skalny Center in Fall 2012, after completing post-doctoral fellowships at the Havighurst Center at Miami University and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Since then, the Center has played host to my research on elections, political parties, democratization, and social protest in the post-communist region.

Over the course of the year, I made significant progress on a book manuscript that examines why dominant parties—strong ruling parties—are created in some autocracies, but not in others. I also worked on a series of articles on topics such as how legislatures help autocrats reduce social protest, why dictators hold subnational elections, how local elections affect public goods provision in Russia, and how usage of online social media can increase political awareness in authoritarian regimes.

For this newsletter, I would like to say a few words about my latest project, which explores how politicians use economic coercion in the workplace to win elections. This research, which is part of a joint effort with Timothy Frye and David Szakonyi at Columbia University, tries to identify the conditions that lead employers to put political pressure on their employees at election time.

Political scientists have long recognized that rulers can extend their tenure by subverting elections. To this end, scholars have focused on ballot-box fraud, repression, turnout-buying, vote buying, patronage spending, and the cooptation of opposition elites. However, they have largely overlooked one prominent form of electoral subversion in contemporary regimes: the coercive mobilization of voters by employers. In many countries, employers—firm managers, supervisors, CEOs, landlords, bosses, directors and so on—use their leverage over workers to induce them to turn out and/or vote a specific way.

My colleagues and I began exploring this phenomenon during the controversial 2011 State Duma elections in Russia. Widespread allegations of electoral fraud during those elections prompted the largest anti-regime protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political pressure in the workplace was one of the types of fraud that occurred in the elections. Observer reports were replete with accounts of how employers used coercion and vote buying to influence the voting behavior of their employees. In one example, the head doctor at the 7 th City Hospital in Bryansk asked that employees take absentee ballots and vote in the clinic attached to the hospital.1 Employers also managed to monitor voting outside the workplace. In the republic of Marii El, representatives of the Mari Energy Company sat in the precinct recording which of their employees came to the polls. 2 In myriads of other instances, employers provided workers with transportation to the polls on election day. For example, the administration of Vologdskaya Oblast posted a video news report on its official website outlining how management provided free transportation to the polls for those employees of the city utility company whose work schedules overlapped with voting hours.

In order to assess the prevalence of such practices more systematically, my colleagues and I conducted a series of surveys just after the 2011 elections. Our findings indicated that workplace mobilization was rampant. Twenty-five percent of employed respondents indicated that their employer had tried to influence their decision to turn out in the elections. Seeking to evaluate such practices from the employer’s perspective, we also conducted surveys of firm directors and found that 24 percent of firms sanctioned some type of political mobilization during the elections: endorsing a specific party, inviting workers to join a political party, distributing campaign materials, or providing meeting space to candidates, or holding campaign events.

Attempts to influence vote choice were also common. Eleven percent said that their employer had tried specifically to influence their choice of party. Furthermore, 33% of workers did not believe that their ballots were secret.

Our analysis of these data indicate that certain types of employers are more likely than others to put political pressure on their employees at election time. Firms that are vulnerable to state pressure are among the most common sites of workplace-based electoral subversion. Thus, state-owned firms and firms that sell their output to the state are among the most likely to mobilize voters for the regime. In addition, firms whose assets are difficult to move—e.g. oil and gas firms, firms in heavy industry and mining—are more likely to succumb to regime pressure and mobilize their employees. Asset immobility makes these firms vulnerable to state pressure because production cannot be easily relocated. We also find that workers who are especially dependent on their employer are more likely to be targeted for mobilization. Thus, workers who live in one of Russia’s single-company towns are much more likely to report that they faced political pressure in the workplace.

We hope our findings will help scholars and policymakers better understand the ways that politicians subvert elections and forestall democratization. Scholars have long noted that countries with large public sectors are less likely to democratize. Our findings point to one of the reasons for this correlation: large public sectors create an economic elite that is vulnerable to state pressure and, thus, more likely to use economic coercion to subvert the electoral process in favor of incumbents. Our findings also suggest that employee dependence on employers undermines democracy. Thus, low-levels of labor mobility or an unskilled workforce may work to undermine democracy in a country, as these factors increase the dependence of workers on management, increasing the likelihood that they will receive political pressure from their employers.

Ora John Reuter was the Skalny post-doctoral fellow for the 2012-2013 academic year. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University, and will begin in the fall as an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

1“Analytical Report of GOLOS on the Elections of December 4, 2011” GOLOS. Moscow. Online at http://kartanarusheniy.org. 27 April 2012.
2“Analytical Report of GOLOS on the Elections of December 4, 2011” GOLOS. Moscow. Online at http://kartanarusheniy.org. 27 April 2012.