Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails

Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails

Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails

Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why It Often Fails


In recent decades, governments and NGOs--in an effort to promote democracy, freedom, fairness, and stability throughout the world--have organized teams of observers to monitor elections in a variety of countries. But when more organizations join the practice without uniform standards, are assessments reliable? When politicians nonetheless cheat and monitors must return to countries even after two decades of engagement, what is accomplished? Monitoring Democracy argues that the practice of international election monitoring is broken, but still worth fixing. By analyzing the evolving interaction between domestic and international politics, Judith Kelley refutes prevailing arguments that international efforts cannot curb government behavior and that democratization is entirely a domestic process. Yet, she also shows that democracy promotion efforts are deficient and that outside actors often have no power and sometimes even do harm.

Analyzing original data on over 600 monitoring missions and 1,300 elections, Kelley grounds her investigation in solid historical context as well as studies of long-term developments over several elections in fifteen countries. She pinpoints the weaknesses of international election monitoring and looks at how practitioners and policymakers might help to improve them.


In the Arab Spring of 2011, turmoil swept the Middle East and North Africa. After Tunisians toppled their dictator of thirty-four years, Ben Ali, historic protests spread to Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories, Libya, and Syria. Protests in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak, in power for thirty years, from office. Elections did not spark these protests, but they will play a major role in the coming years as these countries attempt to transition to democracy. Most likely the international community will also play a strong role by sending monitors to these elections.

Elections are just one component of democracy, but a most essential one. As David Brooks wrote in his June 19 New York Times column in the wake of the June 2009 contested Iranian elections, “Recently, many people thought it was clever to say that elections on their own don’t make democracies. But election campaigns stoke the mind and fraudulent elections outrage the soul. the Iranian elections have stirred a whirlwind that will lead, someday, to the regime’s collapse. Hastening that day is now the central goal.”

Whether elections spur protest or facilitate transitions, they are important. Without elections, there can be no democracy. Even after transitions, as countries settle into a democratic rhythm, elections remain a central accountability mechanism and the primary tool for citizens to express their preferences and choose their government.

Unfortunately, I do not have the right to vote. As a Dane living in the United States, I fail to fulfill the Danish residency requirement to vote in Denmark and the American citizenship requirement to vote in the United States. I am thus entirely disenfranchised. Perhaps this explains my fascination with elections. To me they represent that most fundamental exercise of a citizen: the right to express one’s preference, to be counted, to be part of the conversation, to be considered worthy of persuading.

My interest in election monitoring was born in September 2004, when I went to Brussels to research a project on the European Neighborhood Policy. a scheduled interviewee was unavailable and instead I met with Michael Mayer-Resende, who worked with election monitoring and assistance in the Directorate-General for External Relations in the European Commission. This interview revealed several ambiguities and prompted a whole array of questions about the politics, efficacy, and norms of international election monitoring. How had international election monitoring evolved given that elections . . .

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