Kenya: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Overreaction?

On March 4, Kenya held general elections, and nearly no one was killed. That might not sound like a big deal, but lots of smart people had been warning for months that these elections put Kenya at high risk of mass atrocities.

Assuming Kenya stays the course and completes the current election cycle without large-scale violence, the big question for people concerned about atrocities prevention is this: Did all the scrutiny and alarm help to prevent violence that would otherwise have occurred, or did we collectively overreact to the surprise of early 2008 and cry “Wolf!” when none was near?

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

I emailed this question to Ken Opalo, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who’s from Kenya and was there to analyze and vote in the elections, and he offered a favorable assessment of the many preventive efforts. “I think the peace crusade actually helped prevent violence by constantly reminding us of the cost of violence,” he said. Ken also credited the Kenyan media for choosing not to air inflammatory political statements and the government for blocking the dissemination of hate speech via short message service (SMS), an important channel of communication . Last but not least, Ken argued that the dynamics of the presidential campaign also played a role. “It also helps,” he wrote, “that one of the most volatile regions in the country—the central Rift Valley—this time round found peace in the political union between [eventual winner Uhuru] Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto (bringing together Kikuyus and Kalenjins).”

Kenyan columnist Charles Onyago-Obbo also believes that reactions to the  helped to avert violence that might have been. In a column entitled “Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk,” he acknowledges that peace campaigns by social groups and the media may have helped at the margins, but he sees the biggest effects coming from sticks and carrots deployed by the Kenyan government. Like Opalo, he credits authorities’ crackdown on hate speech, but he also believes that visible investments in major infrastructural projects in some key regions also had a significant effect.

If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.

International actors are also claiming some credit. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, told the Associated Press that the prosecutions he pursued after 2008 “were game-changers that helped prevent a repeat of the deadly rampages following this month’s vote.” Moreno-Ocampo saw his office as an instrument of deterrence, and in this case, he believes it worked.

I emailed Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University senior who is both a student and advocate of atrocities prevention, to ask him how influential the ICC indictments had been. He agreed with Ocampo that they had some effect, but he described that effect as indirect:

I don’t think there was a substantial risk of violence by Kenyatta’s close affiliates, or by [second-place finisher Raila] Odinga’s: if you look at the financial and political incentives for national-level officials, many are linked to international investments in Kenya’s economy, or to aid flows by Western donor states. This is probably less the case for [members of parliament] who weren’t as internationally prominent, and those are often the officials with the most direct links to paramilitary forces and civilian militias.

As a result, I think we can differentiate between a couple of dynamics, each of which had a unique function in the context of violence prevention: the intergovernmental preparation, which was both public at a national level (high-level diplomatic statements, threats of consequences for violence) and “behind-the-scenes”; and the non-governmental preparation, which was both public at the national level (statements about the ICC, human rights reporting) and “behind-the-scenes” at a local level (it’s hard to assess whether this was marginal, or structurally important). In one sense, it’s hard to draw a hard line between the two, but I’m not sure the non-governmental commentary would have been influential in changing those local MP incentives without an active intergovernmental process behind the scenes.

tl; dr: We were probably crying wolf where the ICC indictees were concerned (notice how that was always included in press coverage, as if that implies something about anticipated behavior), but I think that process—call it discursive, but there was also tangible diplomacy to back that up—helped diffuse the incentives for violence prevention at more local levels of governance/mobilization.

Personally, I also see the Kenyan elections as a success for atrocities prevention. Large-scale violence was a plausible threat; many efforts were undertaken to prevent that violence; and then it didn’t happen. We can’t say with confident exactly which effort contributed how much, but the risk was real, and the interventions that were undertaken were relatively cheap.

Still, it’s not clear how generalizable this success is. In terms of atrocities risk and prevention, Kenya was exceptional in a couple of important ways. First, this was election-related violence, not insurgency or civil war. That meant that the risk was tied to a specific political process with clear milestones and outcomes and was not part of a deeper syndrome of insecurity and mass violence. Second, the Kenyan government was a willing partner in atrocities prevention instead of a perpetrator.

Those two features make Kenya in 2013 very different from places like Syria or Sudan, where state security forces and their fellow travelers are doing the killing and the governments involved reject outside interference. Future attempts to prevent election-related and other “communal” violence might look to this case to try to understand why the Kenyan government was a willing partner and which components seem to have been most effective, but I don’t think there are big lessons from Kenya that can be transferred to more typical cases of concern. To see what I mean, just think about how effective an ICC indictment has been at preventing atrocities in Sudan, or how effective hate-speech monitoring would be at stopping violence in Syria.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that, while relatively cheap, these efforts were not cost free. In a post on the New York Times‘ Latitude blog, Journalist Michaela Wrong argues that self-censorship by the Kenyan media around this month’s elections diminished the country’s democracy.

“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”

But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.

That’s an important reminder that policy interventions often entail trade-offs across values we might think of as complementary instead of competing. Democratization and atrocities prevention are both things many of us would espouse, but what’s good for one won’t always be good for the other.

Forecasting Politics Is Still Hard to Do (Well)

Last November, after the U.S. elections, I wrote a thing for Foreign Policy about persistent constraints on the accuracy of statistical forecasts of politics. The editors called it “Why the World Can’t Have a Nate Silver,” and the point was that much of what people who follow international affairs care about is still a lot harder to forecast accurately than American presidential elections.

One of the examples I cited in that piece was Silver’s poor performance on the U.K.’s 2010 parliamentary elections. Just two years before his forecasts became a conversation piece in American politics, the guy the Economist called “the finest soothsayer this side of Nostradamus” missed pretty badly in what is arguably another of the most information-rich election environments in the world.

A couple of recent election-forecasting efforts only reinforce the point that, the Internet and polling and “math” notwithstanding, this is still hard to do.

The first example comes from political scientist Chris Hanretty, who applied a statistical model to opinion polls to forecast the outcome of Italy’s parliamentary elections. Hanretty’s algorithm indicated that a coalition of center-left parties was virtually certain to win a majority and form the next government, but that’s not what happened. After the dust had settled, Hanretty sifted through the rubble and concluded that “the predictions I made were off because the polls were off.”

Had the exit polls given us reliable information, I could have made an instant prediction that would have been proved right. As it was, the exit polls were wrong, and badly so. This, to me, suggests that the polling industry has made a collective mistake.

The second recent example comes from doctoral candidate Ken Opalo, who used polling as grist for a statistical mill to forecast the outcome of Kenya’s presidential election. Ken’s forecast indicated that Uhuru Kenyatta would get the most votes but would fall short of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote required to win in the first round, making a run-off “almost inevitable.” In fact, Kenyatta cleared the 50-percent threshold in the first try, making him Kenya’s new president-elect. Once again, noisy polling data was apparently to blame. As Ken noted in a blog post before the results were finalized,

Mr. Kenyatta significantly outperformed the national polls leading to the election. I estimated that the national polls over-estimated Odinga’s support by about 3 percentage points. It appears that I may have underestimated their overestimation. I am also beginning to think that their regional weighting was worse than I thought.

As I see it, both of these forecasts were, as Nate Silver puts it in his book, wrong for the right reasons. Both Hanretty and Opalo built models that used the best and most relevant information available to them in a thoughtful way, and neither forecast was wildly off the mark. Instead, it just so happened that modest errors in the forecasts interacted with each country’s electoral rules to produce categorical outcomes that were quite different from the ones the forecasts had led us to expect.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even in the European Union in the Internet age, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of national elections. We’re getting smarter about how to model these things, and our computers can now process more of the models we can imagine, but polling data are still noisy and electoral systems complex.

And that’s elections, where polling data nicely mimic the data-generating process that underlies the events we’re trying to forecast. We don’t have polls telling us what share of the population plans to turn out for anti-government demonstrations or join a rebel group or carry out a coup—and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t trust them. Absent these micro-level data, we turn to proxy measures and indicators of structural opportunities and constraints, but every step away from the choices we’re trying to forecast adds more noise to the result. Agent-based computational models represent a promising alternative, but when it comes to macro-political phenomena like revolutions and state collapses, these systems are still in their infancy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to see more people using statistical models to try to forecast important events in international politics, and I would eagerly pit the forecasts from models like Hanretty’s and Opalo’s against the subjective judgments of individual experts any day. I just think it’s important to avoid prematurely declaring the arrival of a revolution in forecasting political events, to keep reminding ourselves how hard this problem still is. As if the (in)accuracy of our forecasts would let us have it any other way.

Do Elections Trigger Mass Atrocities?

Kenya plans to hold general elections in early March this year, and many observers fear those contests will spur a reprisal of the mass violence that swept parts of that country after balloting in December 2007.  The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention says Kenya is at “high risk” of genocide in 2013, and a recent contingency-planning memo from Joel Barkan the Council on Foreign Relations asserts that “there will almost certainly be further incidents of violence in the run-up to the 2013 elections.” As a recent Africa Initiative backgrounder points out, this violence has roots that stretch much deeper than the 2007 elections, but the fear that mass violence will flare again around this year’s balloting seems well founded.

All of which got me wondering: is this a generic problem? We know that election-related violence is a real and multifaceted thing. We also have works by Jack Snyder and Amy Chua, among others, arguing that democratization actually makes some countries more susceptible to ethnic and nationalist conflict rather than less, as democracy promoters often claim. What I’m wondering, though—as someone who has long studied democratization and is currently working on tools to forecast genocide and other forms of mass killing—is whether or not elections substantially increase the risk of mass atrocities in particular, where “mass atrocities” means the deliberate killing of large numbers of unarmed civilians for apparently political ends.

Best I can tell, the short answer is no. After applying a few different statistical-modeling strategies to a few measures of atrocities, I see little evidence that elections commonly trigger the onset or intensification of this type of political violence. The absence of evidence isn’t the same thing as evidence of absence, but these results convince me that national elections aren’t a major risk factor for mass killing.

If you’re interested in the technical details, here’s what I did and what I found:

My first cut at the problem looked for a connection between national elections and the onset of state-sponsored mass killings, defined as “a period of sustained violence” in which ” the actions of state agents result in the intentional death of at least 1,000 noncombatants from a discrete group.” That latter definition comes from work Ben Valentino and I did for my old research program, the Political Instability Task Force, and it restricts the analysis to episodes of large-scale killing by states or other groups acting at their behest. Defined as such, mass killings are akin to genocide in their scale, and there have only been about 110 of them since 1945.

So, do national elections help trigger this type of mass killing? To try to answer this question, I thought of elections as a kind of experimental “treatment” that some country-years get and others don’t. I used the National Elections Across Democracy and Autocracy (NELDA) data set to identify country-years since 1945 with national elections for chief executive or legislature or both, regardless of how competitive those elections were. I then used the MatchIt package in R to set up a comparison of country-years with and without elections within 107 groups that matched exactly on several other variables identified by prior research as risk factors for mass-killing onset: autocracy vs. democracy, exclusionary elite ideology (yes/no), salient elite ethnicity (yes/no), ongoing armed conflict (yes/no), any mass killing since 1945 (yes/no), and Cold War vs. post-Cold War period. Finally, I used conditional logistic regression to estimate the difference in risk between election and non-election years within those groups.

The results? In my data, mass-killing episodes were 80% as likely to begin in election years as non-election years, other things being equal. The 95% confidence interval for this association was wide (45% to 145%), but the result suggests that, if anything, countries are actually somewhat less prone to suffer onsets of mass killing in election years as non-election years.

I wondered if the risk might differ by regime type, so I reran the analysis on the subset of cases that were plausibly democratic. The estimate was effectively unchanged (80%, CI of 35% to 185%). Then I thought it might be a post-Cold War thing and reran the analysis using only country-years from 1991 forward. The estimate moved, but in the opposite of the anticipated direction. Now it was down to 60%, with a CI of 17% to 215%.

These estimates got me worried that something had gone wacky in my data, so I reran the matching and conditional logistic regression using coup attempts (successful or failed) instead of elections as the “treatment” of interest. Several theorists have identified threats to incumbents’ power as a cause of mass atrocities, and coups are a visible and discrete manifestation of such threats. My analysis strongly confirmed this view, indicating that mass-killing episodes were nearly five times as likely to start in years with coup attempts as years without, other things being equal. More important for present purposes, this result increased my confidence in the reliability of my earlier finding on elections, as did the similar estimates I got from models with country fixed effects, country-specific intercepts (a.k.a. random effects), and interaction terms that allowed the effects of elections to vary across regime types and historical eras.

Then I wondered if this negative finding wasn’t an artifact of the measure I was using for mass atrocities. The 1,000-death threshold for “mass killing” is quite high, and the restriction to killings by states or their agents ignores situations of grave concern in which rebel groups or other non-state actors are the ones doing the murdering. Maybe the danger of election years would be clearer if I looked at atrocities on a smaller scale and ones perpetrated by non-state actors.

To do this, I took the UCDP One-Sided Violence Dataset v1.4 and wrote an R script that aggregated its values for specific conflicts into annual death counts by country and perpetrator (government or non-government). Then I used R’s ‘pscl’ package to estimate zero-inflated negative binomial regression (ZINB) models that treat the death counts as the observable results of a two-stage process: one that determines whether or not a country has any one-sided killing in a particular year, and then another that determines how many deaths occur, conditional on there being any. In addition to my indicator for election years, these models included all the risk factors used in the earlier matching exercise, plus population size and the logged counts of deaths from one-sided violence by government and non-government actors (separately) in the previous year. All of these variables were included in the logistic regression “hurdle” model; only elections, population size, and the lagged death counts were included in the conditional count models.

To my surprise once again, the results suggested that, if anything, atrocities the risk of mass atrocities is actually lower in years with national elections. In the model of government-perpetrated violence, the coefficient for the election indicator in the hurdle model was barely distinguishable from zero (0.04), and the association in the count portion was modestly negative (-0.20, s.e. of 0.20). In the model of violence perpetrated by other groups, the effect in the hurdle portion was modestly negative (-0.25, s.e. of 0.20), and the effect in the count portion was decidedly negative (-0.82, s.e. of 0.19). When I reran the models with separate indicators for executive and legislative elections, the results bounced around a little bit, but the basic patterns remained unchanged. None of the models showed a substantial, positive association between either type of election and the occurrence or scale of one-sided violence against civilians.

In light of the weakness of the observed effects, the noisiness of the measures employed, and my prior beliefs about the effects of elections on risks of mass killing—shaped in part by the Kenyan case I discussed at the start of this post—I’m not quite ready to assert that election years actually reduce the risk of mass atrocities. What I am more comfortable doing, however, is ignoring elections in statistical models meant to forecast mass atrocities across large numbers of countries.

If you’re interested in replicating or tweaking this analysis, please email me at, and I’ll be happy to send you the data and R scripts (one to get country-year summaries of the UCDP data, another to run the matching and modeling) I used to do it. [UPDATE: I’ve put the scripts and data in a publicly accessible folder on Google Drive. If you try that link and it doesn’t work, please let me know.] Ideally, I would cut out the middleman by putting them in a Github repository, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet. If you’re in the DC area and interested in getting paid to walk me me through that process, please let me know.

Electoral Systems Are Like Ecosystems

Evidence is mounting that efforts to quash election fraud often displace it instead, and this pattern should change the way we think about the problem of promoting democracy and encouraging clean elections.

Earlier this month, I blogged about a new journal article showing a statistical link between the presence of international election observation missions and the occurrence of declines in the quality of governance. According to that paper’s authors,

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…When election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance.

This morning, the Monkey Cage blog ran a guest post from NYU post-doc Fredrik Sjoberg, whose analysis of election data from Azerbaijan suggests that the installation of web cameras in polling stations doesn’t reduce electoral fraud so much as it changes how fraud is conducted. In the election Sjoberg studied, authorities seem to have responded to the new technology by tinkering with the count after the ballots were cast, and the net impact of the webcam rollout on the integrity of the vote was nil. That pattern led Sjoberg to the following depressing conclusion:

By replacing one form of fraud with another, incumbents are able to prevent vote share losses while contributing a veneer of legitimacy by self-initiating anti-fraud measures.  It therefore seems like a win-win for the autocrat.

As Joshua Tucker said in a follow-up post at the Monkey Cage, Sjoberg’s study…

…raises a very tricky question for anyone advocating for free and fair elections in countries with less than stellar records in this regard. Should webcams in polling stations be embraced as a technology that at the very least decreases one form of electoral fraud? Or perhaps should they be a cause for concern as a technology that is likely to replace a more easily observable (and easier to publicize) form of fraud—ballot stuffing—with one that is more subtle and less observable: the manipulation of precinct level results…If we want to take this one step further, then we could argue…that by making local agents engage in a type of fraud that is less likely to be publicly discovered, webcams could perhaps make leaders more likely to engage in fraud than otherwise.

These studies do not mean that people interested in cleaning up elections should stop trying to fight electoral fraud and abuse. Even if current efforts are not always producing the intended effects, it’s hard to imagine that they are not at least marginally reducing opportunities for cheating and making it costlier.

Instead, these studies underscore the importance of thinking about electoral interventions and their likely impacts in more holistic terms. Consistent with modernist thinking about politics more generally, efforts to study and manipulate the conduct of elections in recent decades have often treated electoral systems like machinery. The whole can be described as the sum of its parts, each of which addresses a distinct technical problem that can be considered and solved in isolation.

What these studies suggest, though, is that electoral systems are more like ecosystems. In ecosystems, a disruption in one element or region can ripple through the whole in ways that are often difficult to predict. As Nigel Greening blogged, that’s because…

…ecosystems are non-linear systems. A system is usually non-linear when more than one factor mutually affects other factors. The mutual bit is the important part as it results in a feedback loop. For example: wolves eat deer. The more wolves, the more deer get eaten, so the less deer there are to breed, so the fewer deer there are to eat, so the less wolves have to eat, so the fewer wolves, so less deer get eaten. You get the idea: any change to one side changes the other side, which in turn changes the first side, which again changes the second and so on for ever. It looks like a cycle, but it isn’t. Ever.

As Greening goes on to say, non-linearity means that change in the system is sometimes radical; the timing of those radical changes is often unpredictable; and those radical changes are always, in some sense, irreversible. For example, apparently incremental changes in the size of one population can sometimes push that population over a threshold that leads to mass death, as famously happened with reindeer on St. Matthew Island, Alaska, in the early 1960s. In retrospect, we can understand this causes of crash, but in real time it must have been freakish and stunning.

If electoral systems function more like ecosystems than engines, then our attempts to manipulate them will always be confounded by unpredictable shifts and unintended consequences. Again, though, that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Instead, I think it just means we will usually be more successful when we treat the system as a coherent whole instead of fixating on the parts we think we can most readily manipulate.

Can Electoral Systems Cure Democracies and End Civil Wars?

Electoral systems are what we call the rules used to organize voting and then to convert votes into election outcomes. For at least the past few decades, political scientists have been fascinated by the idea that certain electoral systems might help “troubled” societies heal what ails them. One recent contribution to this literature appears in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Democracy, in the form of an article asserting that majoritarian electoral systems should work better than proportional representation (PR) at keeping new democracies alive and ending violent conflicts. The January article is a response to a piece in the previous issue asserting the opposite, that new democracies in the Middle East and North Africa could improve their chances for survival by adopting PR. ( If you don’t know what these labels mean and are curious to learn, Georgetown University’s Charles King offers a simple primer here.)

The literature on electoral-system design as a policy instrument is produced by very smart people, but it still feels like a big “Coke! Pepsi!” fight to me.

For one thing, empirical evidence of the effects of electoral systems on outcomes like democratic consolidation and conflict resolution is, and will probably remain, too ambiguous to resolve the argument. Articles often toss out a couple of supporting examples, but the fact of the matter is that these systems are really complex, and the conditions under which they operate vary widely. Because the systems are so complex, any particular combination of rules has often only been tried one or a few times in the real world. Because the numbers of similar and contrasting cases are inevitably small, it’s impossible to make the kinds of sharp comparisons we’d need to infer causality with any confidence.

Second and more important, this literature consistently ignores the real-world politics of institutional design that would inevitably be involved in making the choices it recommends. Electoral systems aren’t drawn up and plunked down by technocrats hoping to make democracy stick or to end fighting. Instead, they’re usually the products of tough bargaining among loose coalitions of shrewd actors all looking for a selfish edge. Iraq and Afghanistan under foreign occupation in the 2000s are about as close as the real world will ever come to the conditions in which technical experts were in a position to prescribe and impose systems designed to achieve certain ends. Yet, in both cases, the systems that emerged deviated substantially from expert recommendations after local actors (understandably and appropriately) asserted themselves and injected their own ideas and interests into the process. If paper solutions couldn’t get translated into practice under those conditions, it’s hard to see how this literature is going to become much more than an intellectual exercise unless and until it incorporates the politics of institutional choice into its recommendations.

Last but not least, articles in this vein often gloss over the fact that decisions about electoral-system design inevitably involve trade-offs between different values. As Pippa Norris puts it,

There is no single ‘best’ system: these arguments represent irresolvable value conflicts. For societies, which are raven [sic] by deep-rooted ethnic, religious or ethnic divisions, like Mali, Russia, or Israel, the proportional system may prove more inclusive (Lijphart 1977), but it may also reinforce rather than ameliorate these cleavages (Tsebelis 1990). For states, which are already highly centralized, like Britain or New Zealand, majoritarian systems can insulate the government from the need for broader consultation and democratic checks and balances. In constitutional design it appears that despite the appeal of ‘electoral engineering’ there are no easy choices.

Until the literature starts dealing more effectively with these issues–the ambiguity of the empirical evidence, the hard politics of institutional change, and the inevitability of trade-offs between supposed ends–I’m going to keep hearing “Tastes great! Less filling!” whenever I read pieces like the ones in the recent issues of JoD.

Election-Watching in the Age of Global Connectivity

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.

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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