four ways to better protect and defend democracy

More elections are being held than ever – but the number of questionable polls being held around the world is fueling fears of a “global democratic recession”, where the will of the people is not reflected in the announcement of the results. Two countries with elections in the coming days and months, where opposition parties or international bodies are concerned that the process will not be fair, are Kenya, which will go to the polls on August 8, and Brazil, which will vote on October 2.

In Kenya, presidential candidate William Ruto has said the “deep state” will try to prevent him from winning. Following controversial polls in 2007, 2013 and 2017 — the latest of which was annulled by Kenya’s Supreme Court because it was conducted illegally — there are widespread fears that evidence of electoral fraud could lead to political instability.

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has responded to the poor polls by adopting a “Trumpian” strategy to undermine confidence in his own electoral system. Many commentators worry that this is a preemptive move designed to allow him to dismiss the election defeat on the false claim that the vote was rigged.

These examples highlight the important role that international observer missions – such as those of the Carter Center, the European Union, the Commonwealth and the African Union – should play in protecting elections from abuse, but also the fact that those who care about democracy should do more to do .

The inaugural meeting of the Election Observation Research Network (Elector), a new organization committed to fostering conversations among observers, community groups and researchers, identified how to build better in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The first report draws four key lessons about strengthening election observation.

1: Strengthening International and Domestic Partnerships

International observers typically deploy smaller missions than their domestic counterparts and face greater barriers in crisis conditions. Widespread travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and health concerns during the COVID pandemic have spurred deeper cooperation between domestic and international observer groups. For example, the Commonwealth Secretariat partnered with several local civil society organizations for the replay of Malawi’s 2020 presidential election, gaining access to more than 6,000 observers and volunteers – a number several times larger than the usual mission size.

Given the likelihood of future climate pandemics and emergencies, a new partnership-based model combining virtual and in-person monitoring could make international observation more sustainable. It will help build critical domestic observer capacity and dispel allegations that international observers are pushing a foreign agenda.

While international observers must remain independent, closer cooperation with domestic observers will ensure that they are more responsive to local needs.

2: Enforce Recommendations

Recommendations remain one of the most important means by which observers can improve the quality of polls. Technical recommendations will be implemented before those on political issues, including campaign finance and female representation, which require buy-in from all parties.

National and international observers can facilitate implementation by pooling and harmonizing their recommendations. Observers from Ghana noted that this worked during the 2015 elections in the country and suggested following it elsewhere. It is also important to align recommendations with the election cycle, as well as ensure recommendations are targeted at the right institutions.

Kenya's Vice President and Kenya Kwanza Coalition presidential candidate William Ruto address a crowd of supporters at a political rally in July 2022.
Vote fraud concerns: Kenyan presidential candidate William Ruto.
EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu

Election committees often do not have the power to implement recommendations. This is particularly the case in authoritarian regimes, where electoral commissions are rarely independent in practice. Recommendations in this context may need to go hand in hand with concerted international pressure, including from those not involved in observation.

3: Monitoring of digital and electronic technology

New digital and electronic technologies should not be seen as solutions to electoral integrity problems. They can be used and abused just like any other technology. Understanding who benefits and why is critical, as is understanding the motivations behind their adoption.

Their introduction into authoritarian and post-authoritarian contexts could lead to increased public distrust due to a history of electoral manipulation and state oversight. Part of this has to do with the population’s distrust of the government, but also many people don’t understand how these technologies work and whether they can be manipulated.

While international observers are already recalibrating their methodologies, their focus is generally more on electronic voting. Many countries use digital processes for everything but voting – for example, biometric voter registration has been used by more than 50 countries. To scrutinize digital processes, observers need to understand the signs of digital manipulation and have access to IT and digital experts who can investigate signs of foul play.

4: Fighting disinformation

Disinformation is becoming a major problem. While it has always been part of election competitions, its accelerated diffusion and unprecedented reach thanks to the rise of digital technology and social media make it harder to tackle.

International observers should include monitoring of disinformation in their electoral analysis. Understanding who is creating disinformation, who is spreading it and how, and who is benefiting from it is crucial.

International observers are increasingly the target of disinformation, with a growing number of false claims that they work for one party or another. They should play an active role in countering disinformation by denouncing the actions of government media and advocating for greater accountability online.

Observing the future

What all these points make clear is that observation must evolve over time. In Brazil and countless other countries around the world, leaders who manipulate elections are using new strategies that in many cases they have learned from each other, and so the way we protect elections needs to change too. As elections are now being manipulated well before Election Day, observers need more support and more funding throughout the election cycle.

In answering these challenges and the controversies of recent years, it is essential that we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All too often, observers are criticized by opposition figures for failing to condemn problematic polls. While such frustration is understandable, the constraints under which observers operate is often ignored. Moreover, even those who have been most frustrated recognize that the solution is not to give up observation.

Instead, pro-democracy activists, researchers, practitioners, leaders and observers must work together to develop new strategies to outwit the forces of authoritarianism.

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