The Limits of Election Monitoring

What Independent Observation Can (and Can’t) Do

Today, the international monitoring of elections has become so common that refusing to invite foreign observers is seen as a signal that a regime has something to hide. Among the media and in policy circles, the importance of election monitoring is almost universally accepted. This uncritical treatment of international election observation, however, ignores a more complicated reality: that monitors can have both positive and negative effects. And now, as countries in the Middle East and northern Africa are poised to hold competitive elections for the first time, understanding the role and impact of election observers is more important than ever.

Election observation took shape in the post-Cold War years, as a number of regions, in particular Africa and post-communist eastern Europe, held multiparty elections for the first time. Today, the most active international election monitors come from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but more than a dozen organizations (including the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and the Organization of American States) send observers to five or more elections each year.

On the positive side, observers can verify that governments are indeed playing by the rules, which can be important in quelling “sore loser” protests, increasing voter confidence, assisting the international community in assessing the legitimacy of the elections, and in theory, promoting democratization. And when governments do not play by the rules, observers can reduce fraud that would otherwise occur and condemn governments for election manipulation, sometimes validating domestic protest, as happened in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. International monitors conduct a great deal of on-the-ground work months before an election even takes place. They provide legal and logistical assistance, monitor the media, and coordinate with domestic observers and other civil-society groups. At the same time, they pressure governments -- either through direct meetings or public condemnation -- to update voter registers, support domestic observers, ensure that ballot materials are delivered throughout the country, and adopt technologies that make blatant election fraud harder.

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