How to Make Electoral Assistance More Effective

Several of my recent posts have harped on the limits and potentially counterproductive consequences of democracy-promotion aid (see here and here) and Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan (here). Today, while we’re all pulling our hair out over the debt-ceiling death spiral, I thought I’d offer something more positive.

Electoral assistance is one area where I think international democracy-promotion efforts can be most effective and carry fewer downsides, but there are lots of different ways to do it. A 2006 report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) makes some well-informed recommendations on how to do it right. One of those recommendations encourages donors to put institution-building ahead of logistical support for individual electoral events (with emphasis in the original text, which can be found here):

The international community has often been keen to provide support to elections during the last 15 years, and many positive contributions have resulted. However, donors have sometimes tended to provide assistance to elections because they have an easily identifi able and measurable outcome, provide high visibility, are politically attractive and are easy to justify to their domestic constituents. This means that elections are too often supported as isolated events…It has increasingly been realized that...the building of a strong and stable electoral administration capacity is a better long-term investment than ad hoc contributions to electoral events.

Improved election administration can reduce the risk of a democratic breakdown in a couple of ways. First, better election administration should make it harder for the ruling president or party to rig the system in their own favor by manipulating election procedures or outcomes. Second, by making it harder for incumbents to cheat, effective administration can also assuage the opposition’s and the military’s fears about the prospect of an incumbent “coup.” That fear is a serious concern because it can propel the opposition or the military to attempt preemptive coups or rebellions of their own. (These arguments are developed more fully on pp. 137-141 of my book on democratic breakdown.)

The idea that the capacity and design of election administration can improve prospects for democracy’s survival is supported by the limited amount of empirical research on this subject to date. In one relevant study from 1999 (pdf), Robert Pastor examined 50 “transitional” elections in “developing” countries during the period 1985-1994 and found a strong association between the presence of an independent electoral commission (EC) and the quality of those elections. Of 23 elections that “failed,” only three were overseen by independent commissions. Of the 23 that “succeeded,” all were overseen by ECs, of which 12 were fully independent and 11 partially independent. Based on this evidence, Pastor concluded (p. 18) that “the absence of independent ECs is likely to lead to ‘flawed’ elections, but the establishment of independent ECs is not sufficient to assure successful elections.” In another relevant study from 2007 (link), Sarah Birch analyzed the impact of election management bodies (EMBs) in 24 new democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and found that the design of an EMB affects the level of electoral corruption much more than its nominal independence does. This is hardly enough evidence to declare an “iron law” of democracy promotion, but it is at least encouraging that empirical analysis so far supports deductive reasoning and common sense.

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