Election Observation Missions (EOMs) in general, don’t receive enough attention from the academic and policy communities. Not no attention of course, but very little when we consider how important they are. Maybe it’s because by their very nature, EOMs are assumed to be another method of data collection to build other assessments off of. While they certainly can be that, they are really inherently political missions, whose very presence means something, and that have an impact beyond the data they collect.
Susan Hyde, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University, has published a new article, Catch Us If You Can: Election Monitoring and International Norm Diffusion. The article explores the dramatic increase in election observations worldwide. Hyde concludes that regimes have made the calculation that the presence of election observers has become a signal of democratizing, while the risks of a negative election observation report outweighs the benefits of not inviting any foreign observers.
Why has the decision to invite foreign election observers become an international norm? More generally, how do international norms develop in the absence of incentives for cooperation or activism by norm entrepreneurs? Motivated by the case of election observation, I argue that international norms can be generated through a diffusely motivated signaling process. Responding to increased benefits associated with being democratic, international election observation was initiated by democratizing governments as a signal of a government’s commitment to democracy. Increased democracy-contingent benefits gave other “true-democrats” the incentive to invite observers, resulting in a widespread belief that all true-democrats invite election monitors. Consequently, not inviting observers became an unambiguous signal that a government was not democratizing, giving even pseudo-democrats reason to invite observers and risk a negative report.
So is the proliferation of Election Observation Missions an entirely good thing? In Election Observers and Their Biases, Judith Kelley, an associate professor at Duke University, compiles a database of the world’s observation missions and attempts to critically analyze their behavior.
While endorsing the objectives of EOMs, she notices issues she believes will have to be addressed in order to for them to maintain relevancy. Her main concern is the notable pattern of EOMs giving ambiguous and often conflicting assessments of elections. Her data, which she does not present, shows that the assessment of elections is influenced by the mission’s organization, the source of funding, and the host country.
She also discusses the problem that occurs when observers want to reward progress made in a country, but the environment does not warrant a positive assessment. It is in addressing this phenomenon that Kelley notices certain peculiarities in her data. The most striking is the fact that the more violent a pre-election environment is, the more likely observation missions will endorse an otherwise flawed poll. Kelley also touches upon some issues that have been addressed in previous writings, such as the phenomenon where pre-election irregularities are more likely to be ignored by an assessment team than those that occur during the polling process.