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  • The Rise of Election MonitoringThe Role of Domestic Observers
  • Neil Nevitte (bio) and Santiago A. Canton (bio)

The 1980s and 1990s will be remembered as remarkable decades of political change. Citizens in country after country have turned their backs on oppressive regimes and embraced more open governments and more transparent electoral processes. Free and fair elections are important benchmarks in the democratic life of a country. Thus elections in transitional democracies attract international attention for a combination of good reasons: they not only constitute a litmus test of a regime’s devotion to a variety of democratic values and procedural norms, but also provide critical opportunities for voters to weaken or break the grip of authoritarian governments. Indeed, such international organizations as the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) have long-standing traditions of active involvement in such elections— mounting observer missions, supplying and training observers, providing technical and logistical support, and rendering judgment as to whether a particular election qualifies as “free, fair, and transparent.” 1

The last decade or so has seen at least two important developments in election monitoring. First, election observations have become far more sophisticated, and their scope has expanded to encompass a far wider array of activities than before. The roles of the media, political parties, and election commissions are coming under closer and more systematic scrutiny. Increasing attention is being paid to the accuracy of voter-registration lists, and audits of electoral registries have become the norm rather than the exception. Electoral laws as well as campaign rules are now evaluated in far greater detail than ever before. [End Page 47]

As in the past, the presence of observers at polling stations remains the centerpiece of most observation efforts. But there have been significant changes in how observers are deployed, in what they are asked to do, in what they report, and in how those reports are analyzed. These shifts reflect both a greater appreciation of the importance of environmental factors in shaping electoral competition and a keener understanding of the need for more systematic evaluation of the quality of the electoral process. The establishment of benchmarks has improved observers’ ability to evaluate the adequacy of a host of election-day activities, including the opening and closing of polling stations, the performance of polling-station officials and party agents, procedures for securing ballot boxes, voter-identification protocols, the management of unregistered voters, and the counting and reporting of votes. Greater precision in the documentation of violations and the development of more sensitive indicators for evaluating the electoral climate surrounding polling stations have been accompanied by refinements in the quantitative tools available to monitors. Parallel vote tabulations, or “quick counts,” have become faster and more accurate as a result of more finely honed statistical-sampling procedures, better technology, improvements in observer training, and refinements in analytical approach. Such counts are now routine. 2

Thus election monitors now have at their disposal observation instruments that are more wide-ranging and more discriminating than ever before—and hence more powerful. And as election monitoring has become more systematic, observers have become increasingly adept at developing and deploying multiple strategies for detecting, and deterring, the subtler efforts at electoral manipulation and theft. 3

The second important development has been the shift in the identity of the key agents who organize election-monitoring activities. Election observation was once almost the exclusive domain of international and interregional organizations. In the last ten years, however, there has been a surge of interest among domestic groups in mounting observation efforts in their own countries. Internationally driven election observations, such as those undertaken by the UN and the OAS, rely primarily on the resources, personnel, and accumulated expertise of the international community. In the increasingly popular “domestically driven” observation efforts, typically mounted by civic organizations or networks of domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), domestic groups provide the organizational infrastructure and logistical support for the observation; recruit and train observers; and gather, communicate, and analyze the qualitative and quantitative data essential to the systematic evaluation of transitional elections. Perhaps most important, domestic groups themselves make the final determination as to whether an election is “free and fair” and then relay...