John Stremlau and David Carroll

Professors Susan Hyde and Judith G. Kelley ("Limits of Election Monitoring") are correct in saying election monitoring has become "almost universally accepted in media and policy circles," but are wrong to imply that monitors are unaware "of the power and limits of observation." Rather, it is Hyde and Kelley who may be guilty of exaggerating them both.

The Carter Center, where we work, is often invited to monitor elections, including some that are integral parts of still-fragile peace accords -- as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Nepal, and Sudan -- and others that take place in countries undergoing difficult democratic transitions -- as in Indonesia and Guinea, and hopefully soon in Tunisia and Egypt. Sometimes, we even monitor elections that mark the birth of new state, as in East Timor and most recently South Sudan.

In transitional elections, where democratic institutions are generally weak, incumbent governments enjoy organizational advantages, and political space for new parties to develop may be lacking. That is why serious election observation increasingly begins many months before voting and counting, and often continues after the elections to  monitor the resolution of election disputes. The Carter Center's two largest observation missions, to Sudan for the 2010 general elections and to Southern Sudan for the 2011 referendum on independence, helped ensure that the North and the South upheld their commitments to hold elections as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of fighting between them.

Election observers know that peace-building and democratic development rarely come easily and are usually not linear processes. Paul Collier, the international development expert, points out that elections held in the world's poorest countries, especially after a civil war, frequently amount only to a brief pause between rounds of strife. And in states coming out of an era of autocratic rule, even relatively good first elections are often followed by renewed authoritarianism. Hyde and Kelley rightly point to the democratic setbacks faced by many former Soviet States (and they could have listed many more examples) but they confer election monitors with more influence over these results than monitors would ever dare claim for themselves.

International observers are not naïve about the sometimes-corrupt domestic and international political actors involved in transitional elections. And it is certainly true that observers may face political pressure from states, international organizations, and donors to issue reports that downplay problems in flawed elections. For their part, observers are keenly aware of the dangers of renewed conflict or instability after elections and must weigh those concerns while conducting their missions. Still, credible observation organizations know that their most important asset is their record of impartiality. Only by remaining professional and neutral can observers encourage the rightful winners to be magnanimous in victory and the losers gracious in defeat.

Experienced election observation organizations never preach the merits of any particular party or candidate, but are committed to the democratic process and the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms. Most of them only work where they are formally invited by sovereign authorities. The Carter Center has occasionally even declined to attend elections after concluding that powerful (usually incumbent) authorities would not allow meaningful observation, for example in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Gabon. It has also declined funding if the donor's conditions limited the Center's ability to conduct full-scale monitoring operations or to interact with key parties in the elections, such as in Palestine, Lebanon, and Nepal, where U.S. funding would have restricted contacts with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Maoists.

Hyde and Kelley do not give readers an appreciation of how hard observers struggle when deciding whether to observe each election. As independent NGOs, they have only limited leverage. Their power is growing, however, and their assessments play an increasingly large role in shaping public perceptions about the quality of elections and the degree to which they meet international standards. In a world no longer preoccupied with Cold War alignments, donors rightly view voting rights in troubled states as a key condition for cooperation. Our impartial assessments of elections help inform those decisions.

Hyde and Kelley's concerns about the risk of "pseudo" monitors in Russia and China, who "endorse any election so long as the candidate or party preferred by Moscow or Beijing wins," suggest that pseudo organizations are prevalent in the field. In fact, most major observation missions are run by credible groups that follow best practices.

Over the past ten years there has been major progress in harmonizing approaches in the election monitoring community. A major step came in 2005, when more than twenty observer groups endorsed the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation at the United Nations. The declaration established a set of common guidelines, among others regarding the appropriate size and scope of missions, important preconditions for effective monitoring, and ensuring well-trained observers without conflicts of interest. Now a cohesive community of 35 increasingly professional observer organizations -- not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia -- hold each other accountable, share information, and even coordinate missions.

Hyde and Kelley also fail to note the important progress that the observer community has made in building a consensus on what constitutes "standards" for a democratic election and on corresponding benchmarks that should be used to assess elections. The vast majority of the world's governments have voluntarily signed the UN Charter and a host of other international treaties that comprise international law. The Carter Center has worked with other observer groups to analyze these treaties and develop a publicly accessible database of obligations that apply to elections.

To be sure, the obligations included in most multilateral treaties are quite broad. And leaders often skirt or ignore them, whether for reasons of national, party, or personal security. But it is critically important to hold governments accountable for the gaps between their avowed principles and their actual practices, especially when it comes to elections.

Carter Center observer missions are made up of mostly young women and men from a diverse array of countries. Their commitment to democratic ideals transcends their national and sectarian origins and loyalties. In the long term, these democratic activists will continue to build their own credible networks and election observation groups. Indeed, such groups are already proliferating, including in some of the world's poorest and youngest democracies. There, fledgling civil society organizations demonstrate inspiring determination to hold their governments accountable to democratic ideals.

The rapid growth in the size and sophistication of such citizen networks is probably the single most important development for the long-term spread of democracy. International observers will continue to play a very important role, but domestic actors will be decisive.

JOHN STREMLAU is Vice President in charge of Peace Programs. DAVID CARROLL is Director of the Democracy Program at theCarter Center.

Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher
Susan D. Hyde and Judith G. Kelley are correct to take issue with journalist and policymakers’ often uncritical treatment of international election monitors. But they fail to acknowledge that observer groups are well aware of these problems and have taken steps to address them.

As Hyde and Kelley point out, international monitoring of national elections has become standard practice over the past two decades. The value of having impartial observers present during an election is obvious. They enhance the integrity of election processes by deterring and exposing fraud, and by providing recommendations for improvements. They strengthen public confidence in valid elections and mitigate the potential for election-related conflict. Dozens of transitional countries have reformed their election procedures in recent years with the help of international observers, leading to cleaner, more democratic elections. Even long-established democracies have benefited from election observation. Experience has shown that no election is immune to problems.

Hyde and Kelley acknowledge these positive aspects, but also write that election observation suffers from some serious problems. By and large, their analysis of these problems is accurate, though incomplete. For example the authors write that observer organizations may sometimes face pressure from individual states or donors to praise -- or condemn -- an election for political reasons. That is true. Naturally, election observation takes place in a highly political context.

They might have pointed out, though, that organizations have developed mechanisms to shield election monitors from undue influence. The member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), for example, entrusted one of the OSCE’s offices, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), with observing elections in Europe and elsewhere and developing a clear observation methodology. ODIHR, where I work, issues independent assessments based on international standards and the office’s own methodology. ODIHR does not need or seek approval from member states, or from the organization’s political bodies, before it publishes reports. Further minimizing the potential for undue interference, no more than ten per cent of the total number of ODIHR observers deployed as part of any given mission can come from one country and all missions are funded from the organization’s regular budget, to which all member states contribute.

As Hyde and Kelley note, observers are sometimes sent to countries where their impact might be limited, because of the host government’s hostility or an unfavorable climate for democratic reform. But ODIHR and similar institutions have developed a range of observation tools in response. The days of one-size-fits-all missions are long gone. ODIHR routinely sends experts long before the election day to determine what types of activities would be best suited to the situation. In a country where the most basic conditions for a competitive election are not in place, sending a large-scale observer mission might not make sense and, indeed, be a waste of resources. But having a small presence of experts might still be useful if only to maintain contact with the government, identify possible openings for reform, and stay abreast of election-related developments. It was precisely this kind of expert mission that ODIHR sent to Afghanistan (at the request of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and not, as the article wrongly says, of NATO).

Hyde and Kelley argue that election monitors do not pay enough attention to the period between elections. Indeed, in the past decade, governments have increasingly moved away from crude election-day fraud, such as ballot box stuffing, to more sophisticated methods of influencing election outcomes. These include controlling the media and restricting the registration of political parties and candidates. But in response, serious election monitoring organizations already moved to a long-term observation approach back in the mid-1990s. Long-term observers routinely arrive in the country several weeks before election day and follow all aspects of the process, including candidate registration, the media situation and the work of the election administration. Organizations like the OSCE remain engaged between elections, working with governments to reform election laws and improve electoral practices.

Lastly, there are indeed a number of bogus observer groups who lack independence, impartiality, and proper methodology. Sometimes this leads to diverging election assessments, but the impact of such groups is minimal, since the international media and policymakers generally look to the findings of credible observer organizations and ignore those of more dubious outfits. Moreover, Hyde and Kelley could have pointed out that virtually all serious election observer groups have signed up to a set of observation standards and a code of conduct, the UN-sponsored Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, which commits them to strict impartiality and sets benchmarks for the professional conduct of their work.

The challenges election observation faces are undisputed; observers, the media, and policymakers alike must be aware of the power and limits of election monitoring. But they must also understand the differences between observer groups and what serious groups have done to mitigate the problems. The OSCE’s experience has shown that it is possible to develop and preserve independent and impartial election observation as an effective tool to encourage democratic reform.

JENS-HAGEN ESCHENBAECHER is the spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, Poland.

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