The Problem With Election Observation Missions

What might the international community of democracy promoters do better to support free and fair elections? One solution is to reassess how civil society organizations and democratic practitioners pass judgment on elections.

by Aug 4, 2021

“Remember the first rule of politics. The ballots don’t make the results, the counters make the results. The counters. Keep counting.” – Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed in “Gangs of New York” (2002)

Over 10 years ago, Larry Diamond, Stanford University, spoke about a global “democratic recession.” He contended the early gains in advancing democracy had been reaped, and in the ensuing consolidation, some countries were lapsing back into authoritarianism. Today if you search the term, “global democracy crisis,” a deluge of titles appears. Strip out books about Presidents Trump and Putin, the Internet, and the Koch brothers, and the list shrinks. None of the slippages in democracy, however, has curtailed the growth of the public sector democracy industry, which would be a good thing if they had stronger, clearer, and more honest voices in calling fake elections what they are —  fake news. On calling it like it is, the domestic civil society groups do much better, if increasingly sidelined.

The three major indices of democracy: Freedom House, The Economist’s Democracy Index, and IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices are not as gloomy as Diamond. They agree of approximately 172 independent states, all but a baker’s dozen have failed to have some form of a direct national election. Maybe over fifty percent of them were shams, but that they occurred still offers hope, e.g., Cambodia. Sometimes, accidents happen — see the case of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.  A scroll through The Economist’s interactive chart shows some global decline from 2006 to 2017, principally Russia, but not enough to justify the headline, “Democracy Continues its Disturbing Retreat.”

Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Tanzania, and Colombia teeter on the margin. They have the potential for a second-wave consolidation. China, itself, is, shifting, and perhaps not as slowly as it may appear, towards its appointment with democracy.

What might the international community of democracy promoters do better to support free and fair elections?  Is there any area that tends to be ignored, misunderstood, or done poorly?

One area to reassess is how public and civil society organizations (CSO) and democratic practitioners pass judgment on elections. International election observation missions (EOM) have now become universal, first appearing in the late 1980s. Previously, domestic CSOs had only started to fill the void of evaluating vote casting and counting which, in developed democracies, political parties traditionally filled.  International agencies, such as the National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, began to provide domestic CSOs with aid and training. As EOMs expanded, so did international agencies, like UNDP. As UNDP and Commonwealth missions hemmed and hawed on how boldly to point out malfeasance, the perception arose that they put international political interests above local concerns.

The current planners of EOM excursions may look back at the origins of their programs and appreciate that though they were not as sophisticated, they were closer attuned to the local NGOs and populations as the latter with those seeking to affect the outcome.

The tendency for the local autocrats to outwit even the most experienced of election observers has been well documented and explained by Professor Susan M. Hyde, perhaps the leading new scholar of elections at the University of California, Berkley. She asked the question, if authoritarian rulers are going to rig the election anyway, why do they bother holding them and inviting international observers? Her answer: authoritarian regimes know they can outsmart the international EOM, and that democratic virtue-signaling brings more foreign aid and international prestige. That strategy worked as EOMs started to self-censor in response to home government pressures not to jeopardize “future relations.” Predictably, domestic monitors feel left out and resentful that the official EOM is not telling the “real story.” A classic example has involved the Commonwealth Association, which, in trying to frame an election evaluation, tries to balance keeping the country’s leaders “in” the organization while being sensitive to dissenters (which usually include its own local staff).

A parallel trend has been, in the words of Professor Hyde, the “homogenization of election-driven democracy assistance.”  Money has poured into the electoral instruments of democracy. Many overseas observers have stories about manipulations of voters’ lists, transparent ballot boxes, finger inks, and electronic voting (worthy of Andrew Roberts’ The Aachen Memorandum). Yet, the homogenization of aid put the focus on process, not results. The concern over the training and deployment of Election Day workers outranked a serious examination of the quality of the electoral returns.

I asked Walter Mebane, a University of Michigan political science professor and expert on detecting electoral fraud, to conduct a Benford test (look it up) for fraud on three Bangladeshi elections data. He feared at one point the program had taken over his computer. The results suggested serious distortions. Yet, the same conclusion can be reached far more directly.

Professional election experts see what interests them, too often. For example, much is written lately about mis- or dis-information, while surprisingly little about the number and circumstances of political prisoners.  The latter are a clearer indication than the jabberwocky of hackers that something is amiss.

To achieve more effective EOM, a simple suggestion is to put domestic election observers back in the spotlight. In future press conferences, international observers should stand behind the spokesperson of the domestic election observers.  International agencies would still make their reports. The challenge of holding free and fair elections goes beyond mobilizing a quasi-public bureaucracy to solve some technocratic puzzle. One sounds like an upper bleacher’s expert by stating international observers are ambassadors of democracy, not diplomats. Their value lies not as a player in the international game but as gentle enforcers of political maturity, ethical clarity, and election craft.

That responsibility calls for calling elections fraudulent when they are, to put even a small hurdle in Boss Tweed’s plans.






Owen Lippert is a senior policy expert with 30+ years of experience assisting governments, think tanks, educational institutions and businesses with specialized expertise in democratic, economic and political issues in Asian and South American countries. He is recognized for delivering policy advice and research using qualitative and quantitative methods and for working closely with government officials, legislators, business leaders, civil society and academics. He has worked in Canada, Bangladesh, Philippines, the USA, Spain, Georgia, Chile and Afghanistan. Owen holds a PhD and an MA from University of Notre Dame – Indiana, USA.