Why election observation is crucial to a properly functioning democracy

Over the coming weeks we will bereleasing articles focussing on what election observation entails: whatobservers look for, why certain electoral laws are important, and how they canbe upheld. As a precursor to this though, I feel it is important to answer oneof the most frequent questions observers are asked, ‘Why do you do observation?’.

The practice is not just one that isinitially confusing to friends and family in conversation, but even to electionofficials such as polling staff and returning officers. This is often reflectedby the befuddled looks observers get on their arrival at polling stations,which can on occasions worryingly lead to staff questioning their right toobserve.

What is observation?

“Establishing an election process that is open to citizen examination is essential because citizens not only have the right to genuine elections, they have the right to know whether the election process provided an opportunity for free expression of the will of the electors and accurately recorded and honored the electors’ will.” (GNDEM, p.2, 2012)

Election observation/monitoring is a practice undertaken by an independent body, which assesses the standards, and therefore legitimacy, of an election. The scope of what is investigated can vary widely, often depending on the resources available to the NGO conducting the mission. Organisations which undertake observation range from large international institutions such as The Council of Europe and the OSCE/ODIHR to domestic observation groups such as Democracy Volunteers – the only such group in the UK and the largest in Western Europe of this kind. Work is undertaken before, during and after polling day itself, providing both a quantitative insight into polling activities as well as a more qualitative based assessment of national electoral processes and their delivery, campaigning and advanced voting to name some of the elements observed.

Yet, it is important to note that observers do not intervene during an election. Instead they produce reports which are circulated to national governments and their related departments as well as being made publicly available displaying the issues found alongside recommendations for the future. All of these activities are approached from a completely non-partisan perspective and observation focusses on the electoral processes strengths and weaknesses rather than being concerned with the political outcome of any particular vote. This allows observation organisations a degree of legitimacy in assessing an election which could not be gained from a national government which could have inherent bias.

The amount and scope of election observationsrose rapidly during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, as newlydemocratizing states wished to prove they could gain democratic maturity at atime where an evolving set of norms were emerging ‘related to democracy, electionsand human rights’ (Kelly, 2008, p.225). Thus, it allowed states to gainlegitimacy and was soon institutionalised at this crucial time as refusingobservers became a costly act due to international pressure and the associated ‘stampof illegitimacy’ that accompanied it (Kelly, 2008, p.246). It also acted as amechanism to aid states in improving their elections through independent analysis.

However, it is not only emerging democracies that have started to invite observers and embraced the process. For well-established Western Democracies, observation can be seen as setting the precedent for well run elections with the aim to keep improving their electoral system (as even in many states perceived to have top class democracies, many issues are often identified). These can relate to multiple steps of the electoral process and specific issues that are encountered regularly will be explored in this following series of articles which often relate to accessibility for all citizens, the security of the secret ballot and the successes/failures of experimentation with the process like voter ID trials and electronic voting to name only a few. For this reason, unimpeded access for observers is crucial and recent developments relating to this have been worrying (See map above).

Why do observation?

Observations allow citizens to interact with the electoral process, allowing for scrutinisation and the enhanced transparency of elections. As such it is vital that citizens engage with this opportunity in order to protect and enhance democracy and our human rights. Aside from this, it is a great way to learn more about politics and get involved with the procedure of elections, from a non-partisan viewpoint, enhancing one’s understanding of the world around. If you would like to learn how to get involved in an observation mission visit https://democracyvolunteers.org/vacancies/ for more information.

Harry Busz is editor of The Election Observer

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