What do Election Observers Do?
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.