Election monitoring is commonplace in the world of democracy promotion today. The men and women who observe elections – hailing from NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) as well as international organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – aim to prevent election manipulation, fraud, and corruption. Short-term election observers arrive in the country under observation a few days before the election is set to begin. They meet with party members, police, election officials, and members of the general population to try to get a sense of what policies are at stake in the coming election and who the front-runners appear to be. On the day of the election, observers visit polling stations to make sure that the legitimacy of the election is not jeopardized in any way by government intimidation, closed polling centers, corrupt vote counters, and suspiciously low (or high) voter turnout. The team of election observers will report any unusual findings. If all is well, the election observers will watch the tallying of the votes, concluding that the citizens freely and fairly elected the winner.
A new report discussed at the Seventh Annual New York University Center for Experimental Social Sciences Conference on Experimental Political Science brings to light some interesting findings on the effectiveness of election monitoring. The authors set out to investigate whether or not election observation actually reduces various types of electoral manipulation. Their case study is the 2012 presidential election in Ghana. Specifically the authors examine “overvoting,” a phenomenon that occurs when more votes are cast in an election than there are registered voters. Secondly, the authors assessed “unnaturally high levels of turnout.” It is well known that even in nations under compulsory voting laws, such as Australia, voting rates rarely venture into the 90 per cent range.
Actors seeking to influence election results impose many complicated strategies for doing so. The authors list a number of methods by which voters can be turned away from the polls. Manipulators can do this by voter intimidation via government forces like the police or military. Political parties can have their own, separate, security forces that scare civilians away from the polls. Even worse, these strongmen can coerce civilians to vote for a candidate they do not support. A vote for the opposition candidate would put the lives and property of the voter’s family in danger. Fearing retribution, the average voter will not risk the lives of his loved ones for the sake of democracy.
In the opposite scenario, electoral manipulators seek to add “ghost voters” to the election, running up the vote count for a selected candidate. Ballot stuffing is a common tactic. Sometimes the final results are simply changed to suit a politician’s demands. High voter turnouts increase the victor’s claim to legitimate power, although most citizens recognize it as a sham. Thus, with this two-sided approach, the manipulation of elections can do a great deal of damage to democracy and liberty within a nation.
The results of the case study, the authors write, were positive, though they exposed some new problems that the election monitoring community must address. In sum, while election monitors did reduce electoral manipulation at the polling place at which they were stationed, those seeking to manipulate the election simply moved to unobserved polling places: displaced but not disrupted. The authors explain:
We find that observers reduce fraud at the stations where they are deployed by about 60 percent. We also find evidence that observers displace fraud to nearby but unobserved polling stations. This displacement is concentrated in the historical strongholds of Ghana’s two major political parties. This suggests that parties are better able to relocate fraud in single-party dominant areas where the dominant party enjoys social penetration and where political competition is low. (Asunka et al., pg.3)
Moving forward, placing election monitors at polling stations at which fraud is more likely to occur (rather than randomly selected polling stations) would be a more effective way to prevent fraud. Working from strategic districts around a nation, election monitors can better combat the intimidation and ballot-stuffing that is all too common in today’s emerging democracies.