Courtesy Reuters

Monitoring the Monitors

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Election Observers

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

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