As someone who has studied the establishment and breakdown of democratic regimes for the past twenty-odd years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time evaluating the conduct of elections from afar. Based on that experience, I can say with some confidence that election-watching has been radically transformed by the global spread of digital connectivity.
Most significant, both the volume and quality of information about the conduct of elections has increased by orders of magnitude. Twenty-five years ago, few elections were monitored by international observers, and local and regional press accounts were sparse and hard to track down. Fifteen years ago, you could find a report from international observers on many elections, but those reports weren’t always reliable, and lots of elections–especially in Africa and Asia–still went without. Even five years ago, the roster of countries covered had grown a bit more, and online news services were providing access to a lot more local reporting, but shoddy infrastructure and censorship meant you still had to hunt and peck for informative nuggets, especially from poorer countries.
All that has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now, we can visit an NGO’s web site and scan thousands of tweeted accounts on today’s elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world. We can click over the Guardian‘s Middle East Live blog and catch the latest reports on today’s parliamentary balloting in Egypt. We can pick up the newspaper and read about how Russians are using their smartphones to record and share evidence of abuses in the build-up to that country’s upcoming vote–and then go to YouTube and see what they’re talking about.
All of this information is a tremendous opportunity, but it also poses some new challenges. When you’re on the lookout for electoral malfeasance, there’s almost always some noise to be found. Often, the closer you listen, the more noise you hear. The difficult part is turning all that noise into a signal, and that only gets harder when the information is, essentially, endless. (Do date-constrained Lexis-Nexis and Twitter searches on “Egypt” and “elections” and just try reading everything that comes up. I dare you.)
The only way to try to relate all of that information to some judgment about the nature of the regime the election produces is to start with a conceptual framework that connects election procedures and the context in which they occur to specific criteria about what constitutes democracy. In other words, you have to decide ahead of time a) what your standards are and b) what kind of evidence you’re going to use to decide whether or not those standards have been met. Even that turns out to be harder than it sounds.
As I see it, competitive elections are the procedural core of contemporary democracy. The notion of democracy is rooted in principles of participation, responsiveness, and accountability, and in large, modern states, regular elections have emerged as the most efficient and most effective way to translate these principles into action. Democracy is rooted in the idea of the rule of the people—the notion that a government is established by, of, and for the citizens of a particular state. On the scale of the modern state, where citizens typically number in the millions, direct democracy is impractical, if not impossible, so citizens instead choose representatives who are empowered and expected to act on their behalf. Elections to select those representatives provide regular avenues for citizens to participate as voters, as partisan activists, and even as candidates. Elections also ensure that citizens have frequent opportunities to hold their representatives accountable for their actions in office. That mechanism of accountability, in turn, encourages representatives to be responsive to their constituents’ concerns, and it ensures that citizens may replace them if they are not.
Some scholars have rightly cautioned against tying the concept of democracy too tightly to elections, a mistake Terry Lynn Karl famously characterized as the “fallacy of electoralism.” Nevertheless, nearly every major definition of democracy put forward in recent decades identifies elections as one of, if not the, critical procedural element of democracy today. As Samuel Huntington put it in The Third Wave, “Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.”
Of course, the occurrence of elections alone is hardly enough to make democracy. Some of the world’s most oppressive regimes have held regular elections with high turnouts, yet governments such as the USSR’s or Iraq’s under Saddam Hussein could hardly be characterized as responsive or accountable. To judge the presence of democracy, we have to examine the qualities of the electoral process and, to some extent, the broader context in which those elections occur.
When I’m looking at observer reports, news stories, and now online streams of information about the conduct of elections, I’m thinking of democracy as a form of government in which a free citizenry fairly chooses and routinely holds accountable its rulers. In practice, this occurs when four general conditions hold:
- Elected officials rule. Representatives chosen by citizens actually make policy, and unelected individuals, bodies, and organizations cannot veto those representatives’ decisions.
- Elections are fair and competitive. The process by which citizens elect their rulers provides voters with meaningful choice and is free from deliberate fraud or abuse.
- Politics is inclusive. Adult citizens have equal rights to vote and participate in government and fair opportunity to exercise those rights.
- Civil liberties are protected. Freedoms of speech, association, and assembly give citizens the chance to deliberate on their interests, to organize in pursuit of those interests, and to monitor the performance of their elected representatives and the bureaucracies on which those officials depend.
In practical terms, that means looking for evidence that helps answer the following questions:
1. Are the officials who actually rule chosen through elections?
- The head of government is chosen directly or indirectly by popular election, or he/she is the constitutionally designated successor to an elected head of government who has resigned, died, or become incapacitated while in office.
- The members of the legislature are chosen by popular election.
- No unelected individual, body, or organization—domestic or foreign—wields veto power across a range of national policy issue areas.
2. Are those elections competitive?
- At least two independent political parties field candidates for most or all national offices, including the head of government in cases where that office is filled directly by election.
- Independent news media exist and are accessible to most citizens.
- Processes of voter registration and identification and lists of registered voters are not manipulated, restricted, or impeded on a large scale to partisan advantage.
- State resources are not used directly and extensively in political campaigns to the advantage of incumbent officeholders.
- The vote-tallying process is not subject to abuse or fraud that is widespread or sufficient to change either the balance of power in the legislature or the outcome of a direct election for head of government.
3. Is the political process broadly inclusive?
- Citizens may form independent political parties or associations without substantial interference or impediment by the state.
- Nearly all adult citizens may stand as candidates for office.
- Elections are based on the principals of universal and equal suffrage.
Those criteria still leave a lot of room for subjective judgment (e.g., when does the use of state resources on behalf of incumbent office-holders become “extensive”?). Even so, I think they’re specific enough to allow us to make sharper judgments about specific cases. For example, applying these criteria to today’s elections in Egypt, we can see that even wonderfully fair and competitive elections would not qualify that country as a democracy (yet) because a self-selected council of military officers continues to serve as Egypt’s executive authority, giving us a “no” to the first question. In DROC, it’s the reverse; rulers will claim an electoral mandate, but those elections won’t have been sufficiently competitive to qualify the resulting regime as a democracy.
Of course, those are not natural facts; they are my personal judgments, based on a specific idea of what democracy is, and what brings it into being. However you define democracy, though, the broader point holds. Information about the conduct of elections may no longer be scarce, but it’s still impossible to make sense of all that noise without stepping away from the live streams long enough to develop some clear ideas about the concept of democracy it’s all meant to express.