Summer 2012

Are election observers obsolete?

– The Wilson Quarterly

Their impact is waning as some regimes ramp up pre-election manipulation — which is less likely to be criticized and punished.

It’s become common for election monitors to file into countries around the world to look over the shoulders of government officials counting votes. Monitors provide an important service by helping detect election-day fraud. But their impact is waning in some countries as regimes ramp up “their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished,” write political scientists Alberto Simpser of the University of Chicago and Daniela Donno of the University of Pittsburgh. The bad news doesn’t stop there: Many of the tactics these regimes use have more insidious effects on governance than the ballot stuffing of yore.

Consider the case of Armenia. Reports of fraudulent voting and vote count manipulation were so widespread in the wake of its 2003 elections that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose activities include election monitoring, issued a condemnatory report. The next time around, Armenian president Robert Kocharian and his cronies fostered biased media coverage and pressured government employees into campaigning for the regime. They got what they wanted: Pro-government forces triumphed in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and Armenia received a passing grade from the monitoring bodies. But nobody would say that Armenian governance improved.

This dynamic has played out over and over again in many countries. In studying 944 elections around the world between 1990 and 2007, the authors found that high-quality election monitoring is “robustly associated” with subsequent declines in the rule of law, administrative performance, and media freedom.

What makes this correlation even more unfortunate is that election-day performance remains the yardstick of choice among the major powers. For example, the United States and the European Union didn’t condemn the fraudulent 2004 presidential election in Ukraine until evidence of vote falsification surfaced, despite the regime’s pre-election crackdown on independent news media and the poisoning of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

Part of the difficulty of dealing with pre-election manipulation, the authors write, is that it’s much harder to assess than, say, ballot stuffing. Who did what, when, and why, is often slippery. Simpser and Donno suggest one way of dealing with the problem: a public system of rating incumbents’ democratic credentials that could “impinge on incumbents’ career prospects after they leave office, thereby leading them to partially internalize the social costs of their actions.”

Election monitoring is still an important tool, especially in countries that haven’t experienced sophisticated missions, the authors write. And, at the very least, election-day observers forestall devious rulers from reverting to their ballot-stuffing ways.

THE SOURCE: “Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance?” by Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno. The Journal of Politics, April 2012.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons