photo by European Parliament via Flickr
Though it’s agreed upon in general that democratic elections are a good thing, that doesn’t mean they’re always conducted properly–this is where international observers come in.
Evidenced most recently by controversial events in Ukraine, elections are chaotic and divisive by nature. As a safeguard against potentially corrupt or manipulated elections and voter fraud, non-partisan election observers are sent around the world by various international organizations with the task of overseeing the integrity of the electoral process.
What do they do
Election observers fulfill a number of different roles before, during, and after, the electoral process. Some common duties include:
- Analyzing election laws
- Assessing voter education and registration
- Evaluating the fairness of political campaigns
- Facilitating the process of voting
- Counting the ballots
- Publicizing ballot results
With the average team ranging from 20 to 100 observers, election observation missions can last as long as 100 days.
The concept of observing elections was first recorded in 1857 when France, Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia, observed the general election of the contested territories Wallachia and Moldavia–now modern day Romania. Since then, the act and process of election observing has grown into a major institution in Europe, the United States, and Africa.
Some international election observing organizations of note include:
- United Nations (UN)
- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
- The Carter Center
- European Union (EU)
- African Union (AU)
- Organization of American States (OAS)
- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
In a larger sense, these organizations–in addition to fulfilling the duties outline above–have also aided in setting a standardized and repeatable procedure for successful democratic elections.
When are observers used?
Though some variation of observation is used in just about every democratic process in developed nations, the decision to send election observers abroad on observation missions is a process decided upon, not by the election observing organization, but by the electoral states themselves.
According to the rules outlined by the European Commission, election observations “are conducted by the European Union in countries upon invitation of the country holding the election.”
The Carter Center, one of the most prominent organizations in election monitoring, as of 2014, has observed 98 elections in 38 countries since their inception in 1982. Some Carter Center election observation missions of note have been:
Election observers have even been invited to the United States, specifically during the Gore v. Bush presidential election when ballots were recounted in Florida.
Throughout history the structure and efficiency of election observations has increased exponentially. Their effectiveness, though not totally quantified, has likely had a major effect on the credibility of election processes around the globe.
In a Netherlands report titled International election observation and assessment of elections, case studies showed a substantially reduced rate of voter fraud and foul play in observed elections.
Though election monitoring can be used to excellent results (i.e. following the Tunisian revolution when 4,000 monitors observed) it may still have its limits.
Sometimes election observers can be misused to give the illusion of legitimacy as evidenced by recent China and Russia elections.
Other times, observers may just downright disagree with the results.
Regardless of their limitations, if conducted properly, research shows that election monitoring can prove to be a useful skill in keeping politics honest–well, a little more honest.