How do we know when elections succeed – or fail?
Many recent elections have ended with bitter disputes about electoral integrity. The issue is exemplified by partisan debates in the United States over Republican allegations of voter fraud (impersonation) and Democratic claims of voter suppression. But the Florida disease has become contagious in other Anglo-American democracies, generating controversies about the Fair Elections Act in Canada, lost ballot boxes in Australia and insecure postal ballots in Britain. The consequences are even more serious elsewhere in the world, where contentious elections have sparked massive street protests in Cambodia, a military coup d’état in Thailand, bloody violence in 2007 in Kenya and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The recent six-week postponement of Nigeria’s presidential election and delays in distributing voter ID cards have raised widespread concern.
But how do we know when complaints about electoral malpractices reflect genuine flaws and failures, and when they are false claims stoked by sore losers?
The expert survey
Expert assessments evaluate the state of the world’s elections each year. The third release of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) data set covers 127 national parliamentary and presidential contests held from July 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2014, in 107 countries. At present, the cumulative data cover almost two-thirds of all 173 independent nation-states holding direct popular nationwide elections for the executive or lower house of the national parliament (excluding a dozen micro-states such as Andorra and Monaco, and eight states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE without direct elections). More elections will be evaluated as they are held in future years.
Evidence is gathered from a global survey of 1,429 domestic and international election experts (with a response rate of 29 percent). Immediately after each contest, the quality of each election is evaluated based on 49 indicators. Responses are clustered into eleven stages occurring throughout the electoral cycle and then summed to construct an overall 100-point expert PEI index and ranking.
The world map of electoral integrity identifies the best and worst elections around the globe during 2014.
- During 2014, the five worst elections worldwide were in Egypt, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Syria (respectively), all of which failed to meet international standards.
- In the second round of the Afghan presidential election on April 5, 2014, for example, a bitter dispute about alleged fraud “on an industrial scale,” resolved only by an eventual U.N./U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement, undermined confidence in the process and the outcome.
- In Syria, the presidential election on June 3, 2014, was attempted in the midst of a bloody civil war and deep humanitarian crisis. Polling did not take place in rebel areas. An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes amid the conflict.
Contests meeting international standards
- By contrast, during 2014, the five best elections around the globe were in Lithuania (ranked 1st), Costa Rica, Sweden, Slovenia and Uruguay (respectively).
- For example, the Lithuanian presidential election on May 11 and 25, 2014, celebrated how far democratic practices and respect for human right have become entrenched in this country since it left the Soviet fold in 1990. The parliamentary republic has a mixed executive, with the government led by Algirdas Butkevicius, the prime minister from the Social Democratic Party. For the presidential election, citizens could choose on the ballot paper from seven candidates representing a wide range of parties. The incumbent and the country’s first female president, Dalia Grybauskaite, led in the opinion polls. In the second-round runoff, she was comfortably reelected with 58 percent of the vote on an independent ticket, defeating Zigmantas Balcytis of the Social Democratic Party. Before the contest, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) needs-assessment mission reported that the legal framework and electoral administration were both sound; the media environment was pluralistic, with free air time for candidates; and there was no need to send observers. In the complete list of countries included in the PEI-3 survey since 2012, the Lithuanian election was ranked similar to Norway and Sweden across the Baltic Sea, in stark contrast to neighbor Belarus.
U.S. congressional elections
- Compared with 127 contests covered in PEI-3 since 2012, it is striking that in the United States, the 2012 presidential election (ranked 42nd) and the 2014 congressional elections (ranked 48th) scored lowest among all Western democracies.
- Experts expressed concern about U.S. electoral laws and voter registration procedures, both areas of heated partisan debate, as well as partisan gerrymandering of district boundaries and the deregulation of campaign finance. As a result, the U.S. midterm contests last year were ranked as similarly in quality to elections in Colombia and Bulgaria.
- In January 2014, the U.S. Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration recommended a wide range of practical reforms for state and local officials, such as how to overcome long lines at the ballot box. But it failed to address the major obstacles arising from the role of partisan officials regulating registration and balloting, excessively decentralized administration, and a campaign awash with money.
What drives electoral integrity?
- Electoral integrity is generally strengthened by three factors: democracy, development and power‐sharing constitutions. Longer experience over successive contests usually consolidates democratic practices, deepens civic cultures and builds the capacity of professional electoral management bodies. Economic development provides the resources and technical capacity for professional electoral administration. Power‐sharing institutions, such as the free press and independent parliaments, serve as watchdogs curbing malpractices. Systematic cross-national research has established these general patterns, but several important exceptions can still be observed. Several developing societies and emerging economies that are genuinely committed to human rights and democracy can overcome these obstacles to strengthen their record of electoral integrity. By contrast, irregularities can and do arise even in long-established democracies.
- States in Africa and the Middle East usually face the greatest risks of failed elections, as shown by Mauritania, Iraq, Egypt and Bahrain. But there are clear exceptions within these regions, notably the successful Tunisian presidential and legislative elections, and fairly well‐rated contests in South Africa.
Where do problems arise?
- The most serious risks usually arise during the electoral cycle from disparities in political finance and media coverage during the campaign. These are assessed by experts as far more widespread problems than malpractices occurring on election day or its aftermath, such as ballot stuffing or fraud.
More details can be found from new books by Pippa Norris on Why Electoral Integrity Matters and Why Elections Fail, both from Cambridge University Press, New York.
Further information, the complete PEI-3 data set, a YouTube video presentation, and a copy of the Year in Elections 2014 report by Pippa Norris, Ferran Martinez i Coma and Max Groemping can be downloaded from www.electoralintegrityproject.com
Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, laureate research fellow and professor of government and international telations at the University of Sydney, and director of the Electoral Integrity Project. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: The map identifies North Korea and Cuba as having moderate quality elections. The full report online gives details on how to interpret this. It does not mean that these countries are electoral or liberal democracies. The indicators measure expert perceptions of the quality of an election based on multiple criteria derived from international standards.