Can Really Poor Countries Hold Fair and Inclusive Elections?

This week, electoral officials and diplomats in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) told the Associated Press (link) that elections scheduled for late November will probably be delayed because electoral hardware ordered from abroad is taking longer to get there than they’d expected. At the same time, the cost of those elections is apparently ballooning. A revised budget estimate pegged the cost of the November election at $700 million and the cost of the larger election cycle, including local balloting in 2012, at $1.2 billion. Using 2010 data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (link), that comes to about $18 per capita, a remarkable one-tenth of the country’s per capita gross national income of $180.

This story had me contemplating a question that’s occurred to me when reading election observer reports from other “developing nations”: can really poor countries hold fair and inclusive elections? At their core, elections are technical undertakings, a massive array of organizational and logistical tasks involving interdependent procedures and lots of hardware. These tasks are hard enough to pull off under the best of circumstances. When budgets are small, infrastructure is poor, populations are scattered, literacy rates are low, and voters’ health is impaired, the challenge increases exponentially.

Importantly, those challenges are not evenly distributed. Urban centers are likely to have an easier time executing elections than rural provinces. Better-connected rural provinces may produce higher turnout rates than their more isolated counterparts. Voting is often suppressed in areas beset by criminal or civil violence.

These irregularities in the distribution of electoral challenges can shape electoral outcomes. Each vote cast is (hopefully) counted the same, but the probability of casting a ballot is not equivalent across voters. And that’s before the political shenanigans kick in.

International donors often try to help poor countries plug these gaps with money and expertise. As DRC’s current situation shows, though, the costs involved can be tremendous, and even large budgets can’t overcome all of the challenges involved. In 2006, international donors provided 90 percent of the $500 million DRC spent on its elections that year (source), and that balloting still suffered from serious logistical problems (see here and here).

I’m not suggesting that poor countries should forgo elections. The process is often expensive and messy, but it’s still preferable to the alternative of government by self-appointed rulers. Mostly, I hope the authors of electoral laws and procedures in poor countries will try to design systems that take these challenges into account. For example, why not hold presidential elections in one round instead of two, avoiding the costs and logistical problems of organizing runoffs?

As it happens, DRC made this very switch earlier this year (link). The move has been decried by some observers as an effort by the incumbent president to ensure his own re-election, but the government explained the change as a cost-saving measure.  “Economically, it is obvious that the best interests of the Congolese people lies in the pattern of an electoral system that is the least expensive,” Information Minister Lambert Mende Omalanga said. “We are a poor country, a country in debt, a country under reconstruction, and a country that is fragile, we need to share the meager resources we have among all the people’s needs.”

The opposition’s concerns are legitimate. As the Congo Siasa blog explained in January (link), against a fragmented opposition, a single-round vote greatly increases President Kabila’s chances for re-election. Still, I imagine these concerns might be mitigated if DRC (and other countries holding single-round presidential elections) used an “instant runoff” system, or IRV. As IRV advocacy group FairVote explains on their web site (link),

With IRV voters get one vote and one ballot, but get to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins with a first-choice majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters’ second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates in an “instant runoff.” The process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate has a majority.

My point here isn’t to advocate specifically for IRV or to wade deeply into Congolese election politics, a topic about which I know comparatively little. Instead, I hope DRC’s situation helps illustrate the exceptional challenges of organizing elections in poor countries, and the ways that electoral procedures can be adapted to try to mitigate these challenges. Not every country can afford every electoral system, and these financial and logistical difficulties ought to be a big part of the rule-making conversation in cases where they loom large.

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  1. Electoral institutions and the cost of elections « Ahwa Talk
  2. Why We Shouldn’t Be Quite So Surprised by the Coup in Mali « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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