Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Future of Electoral Observation

Reading Time: 12 minutesThe OAS needs to strengthen its election observation missions.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Humala or Fujimori? A voter near Cuzco, Peru, casts her ballot in the June 2011 election. (Cayetano da Silva/AFP/Getty)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Free and fair elections are the accepted litmus test of a well-functioning democracy. For nations experiencing the difficult rite of passage from nondemocratic regimes, the presence of outside election monitors who can assure the world—and a country’s citizens—that the electoral process was indeed free and fair is crucial.

Since the early 1990s, the United States and European countries have used international electoral observations to promote and consolidate democracy, particularly in countries transitioning from authoritarian or dictatorial regimes to democratic governance. In this hemisphere, as most of Latin America began returning to the democratic fold during the 1980s, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1989 authorized the secretary general to organize and dispatch election observation missions to states that request them. The OAS has sent more than 160 election observation missions to 24 member states. Such missions are a key collective, multilateral instrument for promoting and sustaining representative democracy.

But what is their impact? Have these election observation missions strengthened electoral and even democratic processes? Can they be improved to meet a new set of challenges in the hemisphere?

Measured by their frequency and the diplomatic and public attention devoted to them, election observation missions have brought about a major change in the hemisphere’s approach to democratic governance. Before 1989, OAS observers were dispatched occasionally to monitor elections, but most of the missions were small—and they usually arrived on election day.

Today’s observation missions are sophisticated exercises, employing standardized methodology and technology capable of monitoring the entire electoral process, from the announcement of an election to the actual vote. This change began with the mission to oversee the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, which involved 430 observers who remained in the country for six months. Most missions, however, range from 20 to 100 observers and last an average of 20 days. They come from different member states and have expertise in statistics, communications, logistics, political science, law, electoral organization, and other disciplines, and are increasingly led by former ambassadors, foreign ministers or presidents.

And they do much more than simply watch over polling places. Observers perform a variety of technical functions long before the voting takes place to fulfill their mandate of verifying whether the parties to an election comply with established national laws and regulations. They monitor how voting is organized and how ballots are delivered and protected. They assess the transparency and effectiveness of the state agency charged with administering the vote. On election day itself, observers are deployed to watch the voting process and the vote counting in as many polling places as possible. Some missions implement a “quick count,” or a projection of results based on a statistical sample of voting places, which is used as a way of parallel counting to verify official results. These functions are described in detail in OAS documents and electoral observation mission reports.1

But election observation missions also have an important political function. Although OAS officials insist that election monitors are limited to passive observation of the voting process, they often play a more active role in facilitating negotiations and consensus-building among stakeholders or in helping authorities clarify confusing and potentially conflictive situations.

Monitors also can help solve organizational or logistical problems such as: untested technology; inaccessible voting places; insufficient training for electoral authorities; inconsistencies in the electoral rules for election day; inadequate information about the electoral process; inaccessible voter registries; bias in the distribution of voter identification; manipulation of tally sheets; and inconsistencies in calculating voting results.

These active roles are intended to help promote transparency, impartiality, integrity, and tolerance, and contribute to a greater sense of confidence in the electoral process.

But an observation mission is not intended to resolve election disputes. While it can investigate allegations of irregularities and present its findings, the mission cannot enforce changes or solutions. That falls strictly under the domain of domestic stakeholders.

This creates an inevitable tension, as electoral observation missions struggle to strike a balance between being relevant to the electoral process and avoiding any charge of intervention. In a difficult test of a mission’s diplomatic skills, it must stay on the sidelines even as it tries to influence electoral authorities to live up to the standards established by their own electoral code. And to complicate its role, an election observation mission must be careful about raising too many questions that would undermine public confidence in the electoral process.

Ultimately, an election observation mission’s primary effectiveness lies in its ability to spotlight irregularities that compromise an election’s integrity. By reporting its conclusions to the secretary general—and publicly to the Permanent Council or the General Assembly—an electoral observation mission can force the collective bodies to assess the situation and to take appropriate actions, as in Peru in 2000 (see p.21).

The “Halcyon” Days of Election Observation

Given these tough guidelines, election observation missions have made significant contributions to democracy in the Americas. They have helped create standards and methodologies for observing elections, including developing standards for observation and a code of conduct for observers. Their presence has generated public confidence in the validity of the elections, and their technical assistance to improve the organization and the administration of elections has contributed to long-term institution building.

The 1990 mission to Nicaragua was a watershed moment for election observation. The observers entered a sharply polarized political environment, marked by a confrontation between the Sandinista government, in power for close to 10 years, and a Contra-supported liberal opposition that had formed to try to unseat them electorally. The electoral observation mission was instrumental in determining the outcome of the election with its quick count vote tally and its 430 observers. Then-OAS Secretary General João Clemente Baena Soares, who arrived in Nicaragua a few days before the election, worked with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Elliot Richardson (the United Nations special representative to oversee the monitoring process)—both of whom headed smaller missions than the OAS—to convince President Daniel Ortega to recognize his defeat and Violeta Chamorro’s victory.

The involvement of non-OAS actors in Nicaragua set a precedent. Since that moment, the UN, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and nongovernmental organizations like the Carter Center have become regular—and active—players in the field of international electoral observation. Their involvement strengthens the monitoring effort, both in terms of complementing tasks and coverage, and exchanging information about challenges in the electoral process.

In 1994 in the Dominican Republic, international election observation teams and the OAS helped head off potential political turmoil and contributed to the country’s democratic transition. During the 1994 elections, observers reported significant irregularities that they concluded had compromised the final results of the general elections, and the resulting fallout brought the country to a political standstill. In cooperation with the Catholic Church, the OAS mission facilitated negotiations between the opposition and the ruling party. Those negotiations produced an agreement that called for new elections in 18 months. The so-called “Democracy Pact” also set a schedule for the appointment of new, independent electoral authorities, and for reform of the electoral system—including a ban on immediate reelection—that set the stage for the Dominican Republic’s democratic government.

In Peru in 2000, the OAS observation mission encountered other difficulties that pointed to tensions in the field and—ultimately—helped strengthen the inter-American system for defending democracy. In the run-up to the first round of the presidential and congressional elections, the mission identified serious and widespread organizational, logistical and computing irregularities. Its recommendation was to postpone the second round to provide time to rectify the problems, but President Alberto Fujimori’s government rejected it. In the face of intransigence by Peruvian electoral authorities and the decision of opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo to boycott the election, the OAS election observation mission pulled out of observing the second round.

What followed demonstrated the important role that observation missions can play beyond the electoral process. The OAS election mission’s sharp critique of the process led to an OAS General Assembly resolution questioning the victory of President Fujimori in the second round. The effort brought broader international attention to the Fujimori government. The following year, after President Fujimori fled to Japan and resigned, an OAS mission returned to Peru to facilitate negotiations for new elections that were held in November 2001.

In Venezuela, the OAS election observation mission’s technical advice and recommendations helped avert a potential logistical breakdown. Five days before the scheduled May 2000 “mega” elections in Venezuela—so called because they were for every elected position in the new constitution: president, national and departmental legislators, governors, mayors, and local councilmembers—the OAS team in that country observed significant delays in the preparations. Key among them was the electronic system, which was not ready to process the voting and thus likely to produce unreliable, questionable results. Venezuelan electoral authorities accepted the mission’s recommendation to postpone the vote and separate the elections. As a result, the contests for national offices were held in July, and elections for local offices were scheduled for the following October.

In Haiti, the election observation team helped turn back what was widely seen as a deeply flawed process at a polarized and critical time. A joint OAS-Caribbean Community (CARICOM) election observation mission sent to Haiti for the November 2010 presidential and congressional elections identified significant irregularities in the process, including disorganization, ballot stuffing, intimidation, and vandalism of polling stations. This was compounded by a generalized mistrust of the electoral authorities. Opposition candidates, charging massive fraud, challenged the results and called for cancellation of the elections that had produced the second-place victory of then-President René Préval’s handpicked successor, Jude Célestin. In response, President Préval requested an OAS expert commission to verify the results.

The commission’s January 2011 report concluded that opposition candidates Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly were the top finishers in the November vote. For the run-off, which finally occurred in March 2011, the electoral authorities adopted many of the technical changes suggested by the OAS team. The contest was held between the two candidates it determined had placed first and second. Martelly won the final vote.

Flaws in the Process

Despite these successes in calling attention to fraud and voter intimidation, election observation missions have often been criticized as irrelevant to the broader electoral—and even democratic—process. Critics have cited missteps such as missions arriving too late to make any difference, perceived bias toward the government, and weak, ineffective reports that have legitimized questionable elections.

Several recent cases demonstrate the point. In 2008, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega refused to invite an OAS mission to monitor his country’s municipal elections on the grounds that the missions were controlled by the United States.

His position changed three years later, when opposition skepticism about the constitutionality of his decision to run for a second consecutive term as president in November 2011 persuaded Ortega to accept international oversight. The mission, which arrived four weeks before the election, identified some organizational irregularities in the process and encountered some obstruction to its work on election day. It also reported that despite rumors of impending violence, the voting was peaceful and relatively normal. But it did not challenge the validity of the political and electoral context before the mission’s arrival, which many considered constitutionally questionable.

Should the OAS have accepted the invitation to monitor what critics suggested was a flawed and unconstitutional election process to begin with? In the eyes of the opposition, the mission’s credibility was undermined by agreeing to serve in a role that effectively legitimized an election that allegedly violated national law.

But if electoral observers had questioned Ortega’s candidacy, they could be accused of interfering in a country’s internal affairs. By accepting the situation, the mission was condemned to irrelevance—at least in the eyes of opponents who argued that the result was to ratify a violation of democratic norms.

Election observer teams derive their strength from perceived impartiality. But such impartiality can be compromised by the make-up of the missions themselves. The observation mission sent to Venezuela for the referendum to recall President Hugo Chávez in 2004 was headed by Valter Pecly Moreira, then the Brazilian ambassador to the OAS and considered by many an ideological ally of Chávez. Similarly, the election observation mission dispatched for the 2006 Venezuela presidential vote was headed by Juan Fisher, then the Uruguayan ambassador to the OAS—again, a country seen by many as being sympathetic to the Chávez government.

The perception of bias in favor of the ruling party, rightly or wrongly, contributed to the widespread impression that both missions turned a blind eye to flaws in the voting process and were deferential to the government.

Fisher’s report essentially praised the electoral process, while Pecly Moreira’s mission limited itself to identifying minor technical irregularities in the voting that did not affect the results, including poor information about the electoral process, inconsistencies in the legislation, overcrowded polling stations, and delays in voting. It did not address opposition complaints about voting technology, the use of petition lists to identify anti-Chavista voters, instant provision of voter identification to Chavista supporters, unexplained changes in voting lists and the registry, and placement of pro-Chávez poll workers in polling places.

The events in Honduras in June 2009 signaled another problem: the delicacy of responding to executive-led requests for observation in highly polarized environments. At President Manuel Zelaya’s request, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza prepared to monitor a national referendum that could pave the way to change the constitution to allow for presidential reelection. The referendum had already been rejected as unconstitutional by the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the president’s own political party, Partido Liberal.

An emissary sent by the OAS in advance of the mission, Raúl Alconada Sempé, concluded that the referendum should be a nonbinding poll. But that did not allay the complaints of Honduran critics who charged that, nonbinding or not, the referendum would be used to legitimize the president’s unconstitutional ambitions to run for office again.

The Honduran Congress asked the observer to leave the country, but President Zelaya pushed ahead with the poll anyway—a decision that led to his ouster by the military. In this case, forced into a misguided mission, the OAS election observation efforts unwittingly legitimized an unlawful and rejected process.

Such incidents raise serious questions about how election missions are deployed. Critics charge that the decision to accept all invitations to monitor elections of any type inevitably lands the OAS in the midst of domestic political controversies. While it is certainly legitimate to oversee presidential elections, it’s questionable whether the oversight of national referenda or local and legislative elections advances the interests of democracy.

Missions have been dispatched to oversee referenda on revoking a presidential mandate, on energy policy, and on construction in the Panama Canal. In 2011, a mission went to Bolivia for a national election of judges, without serious consideration of the flawed electoral method used, or its implications for Bolivia’s democracy.

Another challenge faced by these observation missions is irregular or insufficient funding, which often results in understaffing or poor organization. The lack of funds also impairs the ability of observer missions to follow up on whether their recommendations have been implemented. Further, unreliable funding makes them dependent on a few donors—leading to the perception that missions are not independent or impartial.

The flaws and missteps of election observation missions are beginning to encourage several countries to ignore them entirely in the interests of making larger political points. Venezuela and Nicaragua, for instance, charge that electoral observer teams are under the control of the U.S. and thus are inherently interventionist.

Venezuela has opted to invite election observers from friendly countries or regional organizations such as the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR) that often lack the technical training to be able to objectively detect fraud. Such teams arrive two or three days before the election and tour polling places under the escort of national authorities, who preapprove their reports.

A New Landscape, A New Blueprint

If they are going to be useful in facing the complex challenges of twenty-first century democracy, multilateral organizations such as the OAS need to address many of the concerns of responsiveness, relevance and partiality that have been leveled against election observation missions.

One of the priority reforms would be to allow the OAS secretary general to dispatch a team of observers to any member state without prior invitation, especially in situations where the opposition or significant stakeholders question the validity of the electoral process. Such a provision should, however, require that the secretary general must do so in consultation with the OAS Permanent Council and without objection from the host government.

A process that allows election observations without a formal invitation would also facilitate the planning and organization of missions, while avoiding the need to accept last-minute invitations—a practice that usually results in improvised missions.

In this light, other political actors—legislatures, the judiciary, local governments or even political parties—should be able to independently request an election observation mission from the OAS. Allowing only executive branches to invite missions can lead to distorted or biased results and, in the worst cases, constrain the ability to identify abuses of democracy by individual leaders.

The way in which electoral missions are scheduled also needs to be changed. Election observation missions must be dispatched as early as possible in the process, preferably at least two months before election day. In cases where political polarization threatens the integrity of the electoral process or the democratic order—and before an observer team is appointed—the main stakeholders should be invited to a meeting with the OAS Permanent Council to agree on the electoral conditions and rules that will guide the electoral process.

Along these lines, the procedures for presenting and discussing the mission’s report should be broadened. It is not sufficient for the secretary general to be informed of a serious electoral situation in a country, requiring the presence of an observer mission; member states must be briefed as well. Doing so would help give meaning to the process outlined in Article 20 of the OAS’s Inter-American Democratic Charter that allows the secretary general to bring to the OAS Permanent Council’s attention any situation which, in his opinion, constitutes “an unconstitutional alteration that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.”

This could work as an exercise in early warning for an emerging political or electoral crisis; the Permanent Council could then decide on a collective response to avert or correct a flawed electoral process (e.g., Nicaragua) or prevent a breakdown of democracy (e.g., Honduras).

In such situations, the secretary general should be empowered by the OAS Permanent Council to send a broader mission to observe and mediate in particularly high-risk environments. The missions would report to the Council and help serve as a trigger for a collective response, if necessary. Such a mission would meet with stakeholders and help resolve a political crisis that might threaten the democratic order or the election’s integrity even before the electoral process begins.

In cases where an election mission is prevented from carrying out its functions, or if electoral authorities blatantly violate the agreement on procedures for observation, or fail to accept the missions’ suggestions, there should be a provision that allows for follow-up should the mission withdraw or cancel. Such a precedent was established in the OAS mission to Peru in 2000, but the regulations and protocol for doing so (and the follow-up) should be more clearly defined.

The OAS also needs to resist the temptation to observe any or every election. Not all elections require observation. Automatic acceptance of invitations vitiates the relevance of electoral observation missions, and the secretary general should be prepared to refuse a request by the government that arrives too late or is made in the context of an electoral process that is already manifestly biased, or marred by constitutional violations and objections from the opposition.

Improvements in the methods and delivery of technical assistance are needed as well. Standardizing formats for all final reports and improving the capacity of missions to follow through on recommendations would help ensure these reports are better used by the OAS and other actors and strengthen national electoral bodies.

Finally, the relevance and prestige of the mission matter. To this end, the OAS secretary general—as occurred in Nicaragua in 1990—should be in country two days before a presidential election.

These improvements will help to update and adapt election observation procedures for a new and changing democratic, political and diplomatic environment in the hemisphere. Their implementation, however, poses a challenge. In many respects it is an OAS challenge. When the effectiveness, impartiality and importance of election observation missions are questioned, the role and relevance of the OAS itself is in doubt.

But revitalizing the OAS’s role in monitoring elections requires the political courage and leadership of the secretary general and of countries strongly committed to election observation, including Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, and the United States. Their leadership is indispensable to generating the consensus necessary to achieve these reforms.

Tags: Electoral observation, Nicaragua, OAS, Organization of American States, Venezuela
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter