More elections are being held than ever – but the number of questionable polls being held around the world is fuelling fears of a “global democratic recession”, whereby the will of the people is not reflected in the results being announced. Two countries with elections coming up in the next few days and months, where opposition parties or international bodies are worried the process will not be fair, are Kenya, which goes to the polls on August 8, and Brazil, which votes on October 2.
In Kenya, presidential candidate William Ruto has said the “deep state” will try and prevent him from winning. Following controversial polls in 2007, 2013 and 2017 – the last of which was nullified by Kenya’s supreme court on the basis that it was illegally run – there are widespread fears that evidence of election rigging could lead to political instability.
Meanwhile, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has responded to poor poll ratings by embarking on a “Trumpian” strategy of undermining confidence in his own electoral system. Many commentators worry this is a preemptive move designed to enable him to reject election defeat on the basis of the false claim that the vote was rigged.
These examples highlight the important role that international observation missions – such as those from the Carter Center, European Union, Commonwealth and African Union – have to play in protecting elections from abuse, but also the fact that those who care about democracy need to do more.
The inaugural meeting of the Election Observation Research Network (Elector), a new organisation dedicated to stimulating conversations between observers, civil society groups and researchers, has identified how to build back better in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Its first report draws four important lessons on strengthening observation of elections.
1: Strengthening international and domestic partnerships
International observers typically deploy smaller missions than their domestic counterparts and face bigger barriers in crisis conditions. Widespread travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and health concerns during the COVID pandemic have incentivised a deeper collaboration between domestic and international observer groups. For example, the Commonwealth Secretariat partnered with several local civil society organisations for Malawi’s 2020 presidential election rerun, gaining access to more than 6,000 observers and volunteers – a number several times greater than its usual mission size.
Given the likelihood of future pandemics and climate emergencies, a new partnership-based model that combines virtual with in-person monitoring might make international observation more sustainable. It will help build crucial domestic observer capacity, and dispel accusations that international observers push a foreign agenda.
While international observers need to maintain independence, a closer collaboration with domestic observers will make them more in tune with local needs.
2: Enforcing recommendations
Recommendations remain one of the main means through which observers can improve the the quality of polls. Technical recommendations are more likely to be implemented than those touching on political issues, including campaign finance and female representation, which require cross-party buy-in.
Domestic and international observers can make implementation easier by collating and harmonising their recommendations. Observers from Ghana noted that this worked during the country’s 2015 elections and suggested that it should be followed elsewhere. Aligning recommendations to the electoral cycle is also important, as is ensuring recommendations target the right institutions.
Election commissions often have no authority to implement recommendations. This is particularly the case in authoritarian regimes, where election commissions are seldom independent in practice. It may be necessary that recommendations in these contexts go hand-in-hand with concerted international pressure – including from those not involved in observation.
3: Monitoring digital and electronic technology
New digital and electronic technologies should not be seen as solutions to electoral integrity problems. They can be used and misused just like any other technologies. Understanding who benefits from them and why is critical, as is the understanding of the motivations behind their adoption.
Their introduction in authoritarian and post-authoritarian contexts might result in more public distrust due to a history of electoral manipulation and state surveillance. Part of this is linked to popular distrust of the government, but many people also do not understand how these technologies work and whether they can be manipulated.
Although international observers are already recalibrating their methodologies, their focus is typically more on electronic voting. Many countries use digital processes for everything but the casting of the ballot – for example, biometric voter registration has been used by more than 50 countries. To scrutinise digital processes, observers will need to understand the signs of digital manipulation and have access to IT and digital experts who can investigate signs of foul play.
4: Fighting disinformation
Disinformation is becoming a major concern. While it has always been part of electoral contests, its accelerated spread and unprecedented reach thanks to the rise of digital technology and social media make it more difficult to address.
International observers are increasingly the targets of disinformation, with a growing number of false claims that they are working for one side or another. They need to play an active role in countering disinformation by denouncing government media crackdowns and advocating for increased online accountability.
Observing the future
What all of these points bring home is the need for observation to evolve over time. In Brazil and countless other countries around the world, leaders who manipulate elections are using new strategies that in many cases they have learned from one another, and so the way we protect elections also has to change. Given that elections are now manipulated well before the polling day, observers need greater support and greater funding throughout the electoral cycle.
In responding to these challenges and the controversies of recent years, it is essential that we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All-too often, observers are criticised by opposition figures for not condemning problematic polls. While such frustration is understandable, it often overlooks the constraints under which observers operate. Moreover, even those who have been most frustrated recognise that the solution is not to abandon observation.
Instead, pro-democracy activists, researchers, practitioners, leaders and observers need to work together to develop new strategies to outmanoeuvre the forces of authoritarianism.