“[adverb] Free and Fair”

News stories about recent balloting in several African countries are reminding me how media coverage of elections in regimes with uncertain democratic credentials often reads like a mash-up of dueling press releases. From one direction, we get the top-line assessment of international election observation missions (EOMs), usually in the form of the phrase “[adverb] free and fair,” where the adverb, when attached, manages to sound a hopeful note without offering a full endorsement. From another direction, we hear complaints and criticisms lodged by losing candidates and domestic watchdog groups.

The results can be puzzling, because the assessments from those two camps often don’t match. Take this opening line from a Voice of America story on presidential elections held in October 2011 in Cameroon, a country with a regime widely regarded as authoritarian:

International observers have given authorities in Cameroon a passing mark after monitoring the October 9 presidential election amid widespread opposition allegations of fraud, organizational lapses and elevated voter abstentions.

Or this snippet from a recent CNN.com story on this month’s presidential election in Liberia:

The U.S.-based Carter Center said Thursday that the balloting was “was peaceful, orderly, and remarkably transparent.” The center’s election observation mission has been in Liberia since September 1, at the invitation of the [National Election Commission]. However, [opposition party spokesman] Tweah cited reports of ballot stuffing and discrepancies in the numbers.

If the international observers’ summary statements sound like dodges or spin, that’s because they often are. The goals of these reports are not only to describe and assess the balloting but also to discourage political crisis and encourage future improvements. In other words, they are political and diplomatic exercises as much as they are forensic ones.

Nowhere is EOM’s dual-purpose nature clearer than in the Handbook for European Union Election Observation. On page 14, the handbook makes like a forensic tool, stating that, “EU observers assess an election process in terms of compliance with international standards for elections.” Seven pages later, however, the handbook says this:

The conduct of an election can be influenced by a range of contextual factors. In circumstances where international standards have not been reached, or where national law or international best practice has not been followed, an EU EOM will consider whether there are mitigating or aggravating factors, thus placing those circumstances into context…Both mitigating and aggravating factors will be considered carefully when an EU EOM assesses any failure to meet international standards.

Some of the reasons observers might tilt their assessments in a more positive direction have little to do with the actual conduct of the election at hand. The full table of mitigating and aggravating factors can be found on page 21 of the EU handbook, but the fact that an election might be judged more favorably because it was a “post-conflict or first multiparty election,” the country has “poor infrastructure,” or the election took place in a “peaceful atmosphere” makes clear that this is not a strict standards-based exercise. Instead, countries are graded on a variety of curves, and these curves make it really difficult to extract basic information about election quality from the observers’ assessments.

At a time when even the largest international news organizations can barely afford to keep bureaus open in some regions, it’s understandable that journalists lean heavily on these press-ready summaries when describing a process as large and complex as a national election. Even so, the frustrating results of this chain of  imperfect information are stories that tell us little about the state of democracy in the country in question beyond the obvious fact that it remains uncertain. The currency of the phrase “free and fair” has become so badly devalued as to tell us next to nothing about the politics to which it’s applied. As consumers of these stories, we should understand what we’re getting and why.

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