Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

International Standards of Electoral Observation

By Christopher Sabatini

An important role of international electoral observation is to determine not only whether a given election is “clean” (no fraud committed in the issuing and counting of votes), but also whether the electoral process was “free and fair.”  There is no one manual establishing a uniform set of international standards; the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center, for instance, each has its own manual.  Nevertheless, the international community has agreed on a general set of principles of “best practices” to evaluate the degree of fairness and freedom of electoral processes: 

1) Freedom from coercion: voting authorities are supposed to ensure that voters are not coerced or bribed to participate in the elections or cast their vote for a specific side.

2) Use of public resources for partisan purposes: gross, overt use of state resources—funds, state offices, armed forces, other public officials, materials, social welfare programs—for partisan or campaign purposes creates an unlevel playing field.

3) Relatively equal access to public media: unequal content, air or paper space, and unequal coverage in public media for partisan purposes during the campaign creates an unfair playing field.

4) Voter access to information: all major candidates should be able to distribute materials and information without intimidation or efforts to block by opponents.

5) Secrecy of the vote:  voters should be assured that their vote is secret and that their participation will not be used against them on Election Day.  (This latter one is a tough one because in countries where there is obligatory voting, state authorities do have access to who has voted and can—though often don’t—fine those who don’t cast a ballot.  But using that information in a partisan manner to get people to vote on election day (something the PRI used to do) is a violation and falls under the coercion of voters—because in many cases the intimidator doesn’t know how the voter will vote—though often they will pretend they can.)

6) Transparency of the voting process: to ensure confidence in the voting process, credible, non-partisan groups should be allowed to observe voter lists (through a sample), the processes for establishing voting locations, the voting process (with due respect for secrecy) and the process or algorithms for tabulating votes.

7) Transparency of financing:  party and candidate spending on campaigns should be reported according the local laws and should be transparent. 

8) Impartiality of Electoral Authorities:  officials regulating an election must act in a non-biased, effective, transparent and accountable manner.

9) Impartiality of Electoral Laws:  electoral laws must be approved with the consent of and input from leading opposition forces, must be enforced impartially, and should not be changed unilaterally or in an ad hoc manner (i.e., on Election Day).

10) Elected officials must recognize the results of the election, and allow for a smooth transfer of full powers to new winners.

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