Tuesday

18th May 2021

Opinion

I'm an 'election observer' - but what do we actually do?

  • Independent observers, normally organised by NGOs or civic groups, serve as neutral referees. These operations require technical expertise and an enormous amount of training (Photo: European Parliament)

"Election observation" is a term often thrown around too liberally these days.

When president Donald Trump recently called on his "army" of loyalists to swarm polling stations and watch the Tuesday's (3 November) vote, it was more of an act of intimidation not observation.

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  • Laura Thornton: 'There is a persistent problem of 'fake observers.' Often the government of the country they are observing, or even the election management body itself, pays for these observers, holds fancy dinners, and puts them in five-star hotels' (Photo: IDEA)

But given this time of polarisation, limited trust in electoral processes and contested results, legitimate election observation is arguably more critical than ever to bolster faith in democracy.

I have spent decades training both partisan and nonpartisan domestic election monitors across the globe. Party observers protect the vote through careful monitoring and understanding of the law, often filing complaints or defending disenfranchised supporters.

Independent observers, normally organised by non-governmental organisations or civic groups, serve as neutral referees. In both cases, observers need to meet requirements of and register with the election management body, agree to codes of conduct, develop a clear methodology and checklists, organise a deployment plan, and design a system to collect and record all incoming data.

These operations require technical expertise and an enormous amount of training.

When I trained party observers in Malaysia, it entailed multiple sessions over months, covering election law and procedure, complaints and adjudication processes, and the detailed work of completing an observer checklist.

My work with nonpartisan election monitoring organisations, like Pollwatch in Thailand, COMFREL in Cambodia, and PAFFREL in Sri Lanka, taught me the military-like organisation and due diligence that is required, particularly in identifying monitors with no linkages to partisan interests, training them to ensure reliable recording of data, and designing a deployment plan that includes every polling station in the country.

Election monitors can play an essential role in building credibility of elections.

In Georgia, for example, on the night of the 2016 parliamentary elections there was heightened anxiety with protestors descending upon the election commission claiming fraudulent election counts.

I took anxious calls from European ambassadors asking me about the situation, and my response was to wait for the report of the local election group, ISFED.

ISFED conducts parallel vote tabulations (PVT) in which observers count the vote alongside election officials in a statistically representative sample of polling stations in order to produce an independently verified result.

When the PVT results the morning after the elections coincided with the official results, it restored trust in the results of the count at least.

Election observers can also challenge the legitimacy of an election.

Fake names on voting list

In 2013, I worked with local civic organisations in Cambodia to conduct a voter registration audit (VRA). This evaluates the quality of the voter list, identifying whether or not eligible voters appear on voter rolls and whether the names on rolls are attached to real people.

We discovered a significant percentage of voters who were not on the list, leading to disenfranchisement, as well as a quarter of the names on the list that belonged to no one, so-called 'ghost voters.'

With a ruling party victory of a couple hundred thousand votes, doubt was cast on the process and the opposition launched a boycott of parliament.

International observation missions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODHIR), also play a critical role, particularly in countries where domestic observers are under threat and/or discredited by the government.

International observers do not have the breadth of deployment in the country and thus cannot make categorical claims about the quality of the process, but they can provide essential cover for domestic groups and often have access to higher echelons of power to raise concerns.

Such valuable observation is under threat by autocrats and unpopular governments that attempt to obfuscate the election evaluation process. Domestically, this often involves partisan interests posing as non-partisan civic observers.

Or dangerous calls to supporters to watch the vote though they are not accredited or trained, resulting in intimidation and often chaos on election day.

On the international front, there is a persistent problem of 'fake observers.' These international missions do not follow the important ruled embodied in a Declaration of Principles, endorsed by more than 50 organisations.

Often the government of the country they are observing, or even the election management body itself, pays for these observers, holds fancy dinners, and puts them in five-star hotels.

They sometimes include official figures from non-democratic states, and I have even seen Chinese government election monitors. They can include MPs from democratic European and North American countries, who by participating violate international good practice.

These groups muddy the waters: when an official international mission declares serious problems with the elections, the government can conveniently point to a fake observer group that contradicts that assessment. It becomes a damaging 'he-said, she-said.'

From Thailand to Belarus, Kyrgyzstan to the United States, contested elections are posing challenges and unrest. With heightened polarisation in many parts of the world, where no one is seen as neutral, observation missions can serve as that reality check.

They are experts who can calmly and neutrally analyse when something is a "problem" or not, or when violations are simply undesirable versus something that could change the outcome of the election.

As Tuesday's US election approaches, let us make sure we are not fooled by imposters.

Author bio

Laura Thornton has monitored elections in more than 15 countries, and is director for global programmes at International IDEA, a Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation working to support and strengthen democratic political institutions and processes around the world.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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