A perennial focus on election day distracts from the real value of election observation, which comes after the vote

27 January 2022

A perennial focus on election day distracts from the real value of election observation, which comes after the vote

Election days matter in democracy – but they are not the only thing that matters. The best time to defend electoral integrity, and therefore democracy, is after an election. To be able to make improvements, we need politically smart approaches to electoral reform.

Everyone has seen footage of election observation activities taking place either in their own country or on TV - international election observation is the most visible form of democracy assistance. In the lead up to an election, the presence of observers gradually intensifies, peaking in the final week before a poll. At this point, as Thomas Carothers put it, “delegations of foreign observers arrive daily.” Our report on election observation in sub-Saharan Africa highlighted how on election day, teams of observers at different polling stations monitor both the voting process and the count. The media quickly seize on international observers’ ‘preliminary’ statements about the quality of an election, typically casting these statements as a verdict on whether an election was ‘free and fair,’ despite the efforts of observers to avoid such blanket statements.  

While this is easily the most captivating aspect of election observation, the real value of international observation missions is often overlooked. International election observation is not only about the election period and the detection of fraudulent behaviour. Its main aim is to improve the integrity of elections over the long-term. To this end, the final reports of international election observers, which are normally released several months after election day, when people’s attention has moved on, are the real headline act.  They typically include a series of recommendations that are the real stars of the show. The recommendations, based on international standards and principles, set out steps that should be addressed by a wide variety of actors – including election commissions, political parties, civil society, legislatures and even international donors – to improve the quality of elections in a particular country.

While this might sound like a straightforward three-act process of observation, recommendation, and improvement, it is usually after the first two acts that the process of enhancing electoral integrity stops.

Improvement is unquestionably the hardest part. This is usually because of limited political momentum to address the, often too complex, and high level  recommendations and the inability of stakeholders like Election Commissions and civil society to engage consistently and constructively on specific topics and with each other, not to mention the lack of both national and international funding.

Nothing less than the credibility of the electoral process is at stake – the very core of any democratic process and with it the legitimacy of political institutions and leadership. Improvement is therefore essential. We need new ideas and ways of looking at things, as well as cooperation to shift the focus more towards improvement.

As recent research by WFD has outlined, improvements around certain topics—most notably campaign finance and the political representation of women—are much harder to implement than others, because they represent more fundamental challenges to the political status quo.

Under the Global Election Support Centre, which WFD launched in 2021, we have begun to address how to tackle these complex issues. We aim to do this by creating more actionable recommendations and clearer guidance around reform processes.

Only by thinking and working politically, can we identify recommendations that are more accessible and achievable for a broader group of stakeholders. WFD has recently developed an improved methodology to thematic election observation missions around gender, inclusion and media freedom, recently deployed in the Gambia, that allows for a more detailed look at the electoral environment and the electoral process with respect to a specific topic or issue. 

Secondly, WFD is developing a new methodological approach towards understanding who can drive electoral reform process, how and under what circumstances.  This will provide guidance for national and international actors interested in making sure election observation results in concrete improvements to strengthen electoral integrity and democracy.

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