QUARTZ Africa, Sept 8, 2017, cites author


Foreign election observers endorsed a deeply flawed election in Kenya. Now they face questions

When Kenya returns to the polls to decide its next president, the hundreds of election observers who attended last month’s vote might not be welcome.

Election monitors are tasked with assessing the conduct of an election process as an independent party. Observers of this kind, from the African Union, the European Union, the Commonwealth Nations, and the United States-based Carter Center endorsed the results of Kenya’s Aug. 8 election. Former US secretary of state John Kerry, head of the Carter Center’s mission, applauded the process as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there.”

Less than a month later, those aberrations, which include 5 million unverified ballots, led Kenya’s high court to annul the election, overturning the victory of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta. The president should face his rival, opposition candidate, Raila Odinga again on Oct. 17, a date set by the electoral commission.

Criticism has quickly turned onto the role of election observers. Odinga, who petitioned the court to invalidate the vote, released a statement saying, “With this courageous verdict we put on trial the international observers who moved fast to sanitize fraud.”

When Kerry tweeted a response from the Carter Center on the court ruling, Kenyans flooded him with insults. “Please don’t come back to Kenya,” one wrote. “Come again, but this time go straight to the Masai Mara and back to the embassy,” another said, referring to Kenya’s national park, popular for safaris

Since the 1990s, as much as 85% of elections in young democracies like Kenya, which introduced multiparty democracy around then, have been observed by monitoring missions. (European countries sent the first observer missions in 1857 for referendums that resulted in the formation of Romania.)

The results have been mixed. From Mexico to South Korea, observers have pushed needed electoral reforms, offered mediation during highly contested elections, and acted as a deterrence for fraud. Still, manipulation continues. Judith Kelley, a professor at Duke University who analyzed more than 600 monitoring missions for a 2012 book on the subject, found that when monitors were present, politicians still attempted to rig votes 17% of the time.

In Kenya, election observers praised an election that critics say was a clearly compromised vote. Days before the August poll, a top election official in charge of the security of the country’s new $24 million electronic voting system was found dead outside of Nairobi, tortured and strangled. On election day, the system, which was meant to transmit the results to Nairobi, broke down. Totals from many voting stations were sent by text message instead.

Many of those that were sent, which are forms known as 34As, showed irregularities. They lacked official stamps or serial numbers, were signed by the same person, or came from non-existent polling stations, according to Odinga’s court petition. Unauthorized users also gained access to the electoral system before and after the election, according to the petition, which the high court upheld.

In their defense, observers have said they only endorsed the voting process, not the election as a whole, congratulating Kenya for a peaceful and orderly election day. The heads of the observer missions said in a joint statement the day after the vote, “It is important to remind all stakeholders that the electoral process is still ongoing.” They called on Kenya’s electoral commission to continue the tallying with “full integrity and transparency so that all Kenyans can trust the announced results.”

For many Kenyans, especially those who support Odinga, this is still problematic. Observer statements were cited by Kenyatta’s Jubilee party as proof of a clean election. Meanwhile, Odinga was pressured to concede for the sake of stability. “Observers have been cleansing electoral malpractices in Kenya and Africa by basing research on the voting day, yet [an] election is a process,” says Dennis Owino, a governance analyst in Nairobi.

A consistent criticism of election observers is that they focus too much on the day of the election, looking out for things like voter intimidation or ballot box stuffing, a method most monitors say is outdated. During the vote in Kenya, observers did not see how the results were transmitted, accepting the electoral commission’s promise that the results would be verified.

It’s an example, according to Calestous Juma, a professor of science and technology at Harvard University, of how democratic practices haven’t caught up with technology. “It is ironic that it is in Africa that technology is tripping Western election observers. Just like elections have gone digital so must observation be modernized to adapt to modern times,” Juma says.

 “It is ironic that it is in Africa that technology is tripping Western election observers.” Yet, questions about the role of observer missions go beyond Kenya’s recent use of electronic voting systems. International monitors also endorsed Kenya’s 1997 and 2013 presidential elections, even though the opposition raised issues about the integrity of both elections. In Rwanda, human rights researchers found cases of voter intimidation and repression of opposition candidates during its August election, which Paul Kagame won easily. In a statement, European observers said the poll was a “step to strengthen the electoral process.”

In Uganda, where president Yoweri Museveni was re-elected last year amid a social media blackout, violence, and contradictory vote counts, the EU mission neither endorsed nor condemned the election. Instead it urged the public to read its report and “draw their own conclusions.”

“For several years, election observers’ main audience has been the international community, rather than the population whose election they are monitoring,” says Emma Gordon, senior East Africa risk analyst at the UK-based consultancy Maplecroft. “Across the continent, there are examples of observers describing elections as broadly free and fair, when there is a perception domestically that rigging occurred.”

There are other factors at play. According to Kelley, monitors are more likely to endorse elections of countries that are major foreign aid recipients. Kenya, one of the US’s closest allies on the continent, received more than $500 million in United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funding last year.

More importantly, Kenya’s annulled election underscores the fact that election observing is imperfect. Observer missions are usually made up of small teams, constrained by logistics and time. “Expectations of observers have always been unrealistically high,” says Kelley.

Short-term observers in Kenya did, in fact, monitor the entire August poll, from the opening and closing of poll stations, to the voting, counting, and tallying. By that point, many observers had been working for more than 30 hours. One observer told Quartz. “I’m not saying I saw fraud. I didn’t. I just saw confusion and very tired staff.”

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The Economist Explains…. Election Monitoring — citing author

What do Election Observers Do?

June 21, 2017

The work of ensuring fair elections starts well before polling day itself


EVER since the late 1990s, international observation of elections has become so widespread that refusing to admit monitors is almost an outright admission of fraud. Even autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko invite foreign monitors. After Turkey’s referendum in April, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental body, said the vote fell “well short” of international standards. “We don’t care about the opinions of ‘Hans’ or ‘George’,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, replied, in reference to no particular men. But what exactly do electoral observers do?

International election observation dates back to 1857, when several European countries sent monitors to observe the referendums that united Moldavia and Wallachia, forming today’s Romania. In the modern era, Costa Rica led the way, inviting a delegation from the Organisation of American States in 1962. But election observation took off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today observers scrutinise around 80% of all elections, up from less than 30% in 1989, according to Susan Hyde of the University of California, Berkeley. Since the mid-1980s, observers have criticised more than 150 elections.

High-quality monitors, such as the OSCE or the Carter Centre, an American NGO, begin work several months ahead of an election: long-term observers monitor the media, meet government officials and inspect the execution of tasks such as voter registration. A few days before the election, short-term observers arrive. They spread out across the country, moving from one polling station to another, sometimes scrutinising ballot-counting (their access depends on the terms negotiated with the government beforehand); often they will take samples and estimate their own final tallies. Some observers stay for a while after the vote, following up on disputes. Monitors have become increasingly sophisticated, using apps and cameras, as well as statistical methods, to uncover fraud. So-called digit-based tests, for example, rely on the fact that a truly random set of numbers, such as the returns from a fair election, displays certain patterns that fabricated numbers rarely match.

When elections are fair, observers can help suppress “sore loser” complaints, says Ms Hyde; when they are rigged, observers can legitimise domestic protests, as happened during the “rose revolution” in Georgia in 2003 and the “orange revolution” in Ukraine the following year. According to Judith Kelley of Duke University, even when observers are present, politicians still cheat blatantly around 17% of the time. Monitors often face intimidation and sabotage. In 2007, for example, Kazakhstan’s embassy in Washington tried to pack an OSCE mission with friends of the Kazakh government. Russia and China, meanwhile, have set up pseudo-monitors, such as those from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-sponsored organisation based in Minsk, and the Beijing-based Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. These groups happily endorse fraudulent elections, muddying the waters to undermine the efforts of more reputable bodies. Today, with Donald Trump in the White House and democracy promotion off the agenda, election observation faces an uncertain future. Emboldened autocrats have little need to pretend that they govern democracies.

Great book reviews

Co-Winner of the 2013 Chadwick F. Alger Prize, International Studies Association

One of Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

Monitoring Democracy is an impressive attempt to assess the success of international election monitoring by systematically comparing several hundred monitoring missions across the globe. . . . [Kelley] also offers extensive concrete suggestions for improving monitoring in the future. This book addresses a major gap in the literature, in which there are numerous individual case studies but little serious comparative work. It is, therefore, mandatory reading for election monitoring professionals and for scholars doing research in that area.”–Choice

Monitoring Democracy provides an insightful analysis of a topic of utmost policy relevance. Kelley carefully considers confounding factors, selection problems and possible biases in the data. The book touches on many interesting questions, and even offers advice to practitioners. The data work is impressive, both in terms of the codification of monitors’ reports and the number of case-studies.”–Karina Cendon Bveda, International Affairs

“Kelley has produced a fine piece of scholarship that should be required reading for scholars interested in democracy promotion, as well as practitioners. The analysis is careful, broad, and admirably conversant in the details of specific countries and elections. . . . One of her greatest contributions is the associated data set, which is publicly available and codes for both the characteristics of the monitoring missions and their detailed evaluations. Hence, interested researchers are amply supplied with the theoretical and empirical tools to build on Kelley’s work.”–Michael K. Miller, Perspectives on Politics

“[T]his hook provides a rich, cogent, and thought-provoking entry point. It is essential reading for those interested in democracy promotion, international organizations and norms, and international influences on domestic politics.”–Daniela Donno, Political Science Quarterly

Watching the watchmen: The Role of International Election Observers in Africa

International election monitors are far from perfect, but African observers are not yet ready to take over.

ARTICLE  Think Africa Press | 31 MAY 2013 – 10:15AM | BY JUDITH KELLEY

Polling staff in Liberia contemplate how to prepare to count the ballots as an election monitor looks on. Photograph by Brittany Danisch.

In the 1980s, few elections had outside observers, but their presence has grown steadily since then, and today most have at least a few delegations and some have many.

This year alone, the European Union (EU), African Union (AU) and Commonwealth Secretariat were all in Kenya, and the EU is planning to head to Mali and Madagascar later this year. The AU was also in Cameroon in April, and South African Development Community (SADC) observed the constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe.

Election monitors are usually accepted as being a positive sign of a free and fair election, but is all this observer activity actually a good idea?

Watching the watchmen

The presence of observers usually translates into a short press announcement, which is often boiled down to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Few people question this outside activity or consider the differences among organisations.

One group that does pay a lot of attention, however, is politicians. After being criticised in earlier years, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe barred international observers from multiple elections, most recently those this year. A number of other African politicians seem to agree with him. In March, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo suggested outright that non-African election observers should no longer be present in African elections.

Obasanjo’s claim seems to rest on three ideas: that outside observers sometimes conduct themselves in a less than wholesome manner; that they undermine the sovereignty of the nations they operate in; and that African election observers have matured and developed enough capacity to do the job themselves.

He is partly right on one account, but wholly wrong on the others.

Let’s take the easy one first: that monitors violate the sovereignty of host nations. This is not case. Most African nations have signed international and regional agreements to uphold democracy and hold clean elections. More importantly, international observer organisations only operate in countries based on invitations from the host governments. To enter polling booths and conduct their work, they generally need access, and access usually comes with formal registration. Monitoring missions operate in the open, holding press conferences and issuing reports. Host governments are aware of and have normally consented to their presence.

Now to Obasanjo’s second argument. Here, critics may have a point. There are certainly sometimes questions about the conduct of outside observers.

Elections in Kenya unfortunately often provide a case in point and the latest is no exception. The EU monitors have been dragging their feet, with their final report now overdue. EU observer mission spokesman, Peter Visnovitz, reportedly promised the report would be made public by 4 May, but we are still waiting. Furthermore, in its initial press release (before the counting was complete), the EU was positive despite noting that the biometric voting process disenfranchised more than 3 million voters.

Why is the EU taking so long for its final assessment? The Kenyan Star claims that an internal report revealed strong reservations about the processing of the results. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted numerous problems and criticised the swiftness with which international observer groups pronounced all well in Kenya’s vote.

Earlier commotion around international observers in Kenya includes their muted response to the problems in the 1992 election; the mission was eager to send positive signals to calm fears of upheavals and resume aid. Their conduct in Kenya’s 2007 election also drew criticism from the UN Independent Review Commission; the body reported that monitors had at times based their claims on misunderstandings.

Time for an African solution?

International observers are clearly not perfect. But the final part of Obasanjo’s argument – that cure for the problem is for African monitoring groups to take over from international missions – rests on equally shaky grounds.

It is true that African groups have become more active. The AU, SADC, ECOWAS, and the electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA), among others, all now feature election observer missions. The AU started as far back as 1989, and the other groups have joined in the last 10 years or so.

That, however, is where the argument stalls. By and large, these groups are not ready to take over as the sole option for election observation on the continent. They have limited resources and experience, their sponsors or member-states are often not particularly democratic themselves, and most importantly, because these organisations are even more embroiled in politics on the continent, they are often more biased than non-African observers.

Exhibit number one is the 2011 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The disparity between African and other international observer missions was startling. The Carter Centre called the elections problematic, while the National Democratic Institute, International Foundation for Electoral Systems and EU were also highly critical. Even citizen observers and local media called the process highly flawed. Yet by contrast, the African Union and four other African observer missions including SADC declared the polls “successful” and urged both sides to show restraint. Some suggest the African bodies’ positive reports stemmed from economic and political interests within South Africa.

Exhibit number two is the recent referendum in Zimbabwe. Mugabe had barred Western observer organisations, but the ICG had already issued a report claiming that there were so many problems with the upcoming vote that there was no way it could be legitimate. Still, SADC sent its mission and, although it noted some problems, issued a largely positive report – just as Mugabe had desired, and just as the rest of southern Africa would have hoped.

Exhibit number three is the African Union more generally. It should be the flagship monitoring organisation, but, being hamstrung by many undemocratic members fearful of being the targets of effective election monitoring, it is seldom critical and it rarely releases substantial reports. If it has a page dedicated to transparency on its election monitoring activities on its website, it is well hidden. Despite having released a set of guidelines for observers, it is less than a model for other organisations.

All in all, it is not quite the time to boot out the observer organisations from the wider international community. Despite their problems, they have made important contributions, particular where they’ve worked with local officials to improve voter registries, implement other institutional reforms to bolster election processes, improve the legitimacy of competitive elections, and train domestic observer groups.

Furthermore, whatever legitimate concerns there are around the role of international observers, African organisations have the same problems, only worse. With so many autocratic states and tentative democracies still on the continent, African monitoring organisations still have some way to go before they are ready to hold each other accountable. Keeping the company of other international observers for some time yet is wise. Equally wise is to question any politician who bars observers from any group, and to examine observer reports critically, no matter their source.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

About the Author

Judith Kelley is a Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, NC, in the US. She is the author of Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works and Why It Often Fails (Princeton University Press, 2012), available from Amazon.


Author is keynote at Danish Foreign Ministry Seminar for election observers

On October 15, Judith Kelley delivered the keynote address for a seminar at the Danish Foreign Ministry.

The seminar was directed at finding ways to improve EU election observation and was attended by experienced election observers and politicians

The seminar presented several recommendations for ways to improve election observation. Most of these can be found in the concluding chapter of the book, Monitoring Democracy, featured on this website.

Great article about the book

Duke Sanford INSIGHTS published this great article about my book.

Free and Fair: When Monitoring Works, Why It Fails

By Karen Kemp

In these news reports and hundreds more like them lie the seeds of Judith Kelley’s research. Reading them, she wondered how foreign observers rose to such influential roles, when elections were traditionally such a bastion of national sovereignty. Why do some countries invite election monitoring organizations, when candidates clearly intend to cheat? Are foreign election monitors accurate and objective? Most important, do they improve the quality of elections?

Read more…