Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance? Actually, Yeah

According to a convincing new paper (ungated version here) by political scientists Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno, the answer is a definite yes.

As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished…

We argue that when election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance. While the effects of ballot fraud are generally limited to influencing electoral outcomes, many pre-election tools of manipulation—such as restricting media freedom and undermining judicial independence—have additional and much deeper consequences for the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and governmental accountability.

We put our proposition to the test using an original dataset of 944 elections in 144 countries around the world, from 1990 to 2007. The dataset features comprehensive information on the presence of election monitoring missions from 12 reputable international organizations and NGOs. In a series of quantitative analyses, we find evidence that highquality election monitoring missions are associated with a decrease in the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and media freedom. This finding is robust to a number of specifications, including an instrumental-variables approach that corrects for the possibility that monitoring could be endogenous to changes in governance.

It’s virtually impossible to establish causality from studies of observational data like this one, but Simpser and Donno do a good job increasing our confidence in their interpretation of the evidence with smart design choices and robustness checks. They also reinforce their argument with compelling anecdotes of the unintended effects in action in several recent cases. Here, for example, is how they describe the “spillover” effects in Peru in 2000:

Expecting intense international scrutiny in the 2000 election, incumbent president Alberto Fujimori expended considerable effort and resources to bribe legislators and Supreme Court judges, and to secure control over the media, in the years preceding that election. McMillan and Zoido-Lobatón (2004), on the basis of a leaked series of incriminating videos, estimate that Fujimori and his close aides spent over $3 million per month on bribes to TV stations. The losses to society associated with such actions are extensive. First, governance, the rule of law, and freedom of the media were clearly undermined in a general sense, even if their primary motivation was to guarantee Fujimori a third term of rule. Second, managing the entire system of corruption—obtaining resources for bribing, giving out the bribes, and supervising the media to keep it all under wraps—undoubtedly diverted the attention of top government officials from the tasks of governing. As Shleifer and Vishny (1993) argue, covert corruption is especially damaging to societal well-being, because it provides incentives for government to allocate resources to those sectors where it can most easily pursue corruption, not those with the greatest potential for social and economic development.

The authors are quick to point out that the negative effects they observe do not mean that international election observation is necessarily a bad idea, just that its effects are more complicated than we often presume.

Our findings do not imply that monitoring is unambiguously harmful. Even in cases where monitoring harms governance, it could have other positive effects, possibly over the longer-term, that balance or even outweigh the negative consequences. A more complex analysis would therefore be necessary in order to assess the full welfare effects of monitoring. What we have shown here is that the possibility of spillover effects [on governance and press freedom] should be included in any such assessment.

Ironically, the strategic interplay between regimes and observers that seems to be driving these unintended and unfortunate side-effects is reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse games those same regimes play with their domestic opponents. The neighborhood watchdog chases the house cat who hunts the mouse who calls for help from the dog…

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  1. Thanks for linking to a free version of the article.

  1. Electoral Systems Are Like Ecosystems « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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