The Future of Electoral Observation

By Perina, Rubén M. | Americas Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Future of Electoral Observation

Perina, Rubén M., Americas Quarterly

International election observation missions helped usher in a new era of democratic governance in the Americas. Are they up to a new set of challenges presented by countries like Venezuela?

Free and fair elections are the accepted litmus test of a well-functioning democracy. For nations experiencing the diffi cult rite of passage from nondemocratic regimes, the presence of outside election monitors who can assure the world-and a country's citizens-that the electoral process was indeed free and fair is crucial.

Since the early 1990s, the United States and European countries have used international electoral observations to promote and consolidate democracy, particularly in countries transitioning from authoritarian or dictatorial regimes to democratic governance. In this hemisphere, as most of Latin America began returning to the democratic fold during the 1980s, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1989 authorized the secretary general to organize and dispatch election observation missions to states that request them. The OAS has sent more than 160 election observation missions to 24 member states. Such missions are a key collective, multilateral instrument for promoting and sustaining representative democracy.

But what is their impact? Have these election observation missions strengthened electoral and even democratic processes? Can they be improved to meet a new set of challenges in the hemisphere?

Measured by their frequency and the diplomatic and public attention devoted to them, election observation missions have brought about a major change in the hemisphere's approach to democratic governance. Before 1989, OAS observers were dispatched occasionally to monitor elections, but most of the missions were small-and they usually arrived on election day.

Today's observation missions are sophisticated exercises, employing standardized methodology and technology capable of monitoring the entire electoral process, from the announcement of an election to the actual vote. This change began with the mission to oversee the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, which involved 430 observers who remained in the country for six months. Most missions, however, range from 20 to 100 observers and last an average of 20 days. They come from different member states and have expertise in statistics, communications, logistics, political science, law, electoral organization, and other disciplines, and are increasingly led by former ambassadors, foreign ministers or presidents.

And they do much more than simply watch over polling places. Observers perform a variety of technical functions long before the voting takes place to fulfi ll their mandate of verifying whether the parties to an election comply with established national laws and regulations. They monitor how voting is organized and how ballots are delivered and protected. They assess the transparency and effectiveness of the state agency charged with administering the vote. On election day itself, observers are deployed to watch the voting process and the vote counting in as many polling places as possible. Some missions implement a "quick count," or a projection of results based on a statistical sample of voting places, which is used as a way of parallel counting to verify offi cial results. These functions are described in detail in OAS documents and electoral observation mission reports.1

But election observation missions also have an important political function. Although OAS offi cials insist that election monitors are limited to passive observation of the voting process, they often play a more active role in facilitating negotiations and consensus- building among stakeholders or in helping authorities clarify confusing and potentially confl ictive situations.

Monitors also can help solve organizational or logistical problems such as: untested technology; inaccessible voting places; insuffi cient training for electoral authorities; inconsistencies in the electoral rules for election day; inadequate information about the electoral process; inaccessible voter registries; bias in the distribution of voter identifi cation; manipulation of tally sheets; and inconsistencies in calculating voting results. …

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