Q & A:

Sarah Birch on What Is Electoral Integrity?

May 21, 2012

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On February 21, 2012, Yemenis went to the polls for the first presidential election after the departure of longtime, autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Unlike open, multi-party presidential contests, there was only one candidate on the ballot. Yet, voters turned out in droves even submitting 9,000 SMS messages to monitors and observers about any perceived incidents of malpractice at the polls. The SMS messages, the first time such technology was used by Yemenis in any election, demonstrate a concern for legitimizing the elections process despite the dearth of candidates on the ballot. Why a concern for electoral malpractice or, in another way of speaking, a desire to maintain the integrity of the electoral process?

This week, Creative magazine talked with Professor Sarah Birch from the University of Essex and an expert in electoral malpractice. According to Birch, electoral processes can in many respects be seen as the lynchpin of democracy. “It goes without saying that democracy involves far more than ‘free and fair’ elections, yet if credible elections are not a sufficient condition for democracy, they nevertheless remain a necessary condition for any polity to be considered democratic. Elections ought to go a long way toward making democracy ‘work’, in that they provide a mechanism through which each citizen can contribute on a collective basis to collective decision-making.” It was for this reason that Yemenis turned out for the polls to show their commitment to the democratic process and the belief that a show of hands can show a nation’s determination to move forward in its political evolution. It’s what Birch calls in her book, Electoral Malpractice, “a catalytic moment when a crisis galvanizes sufficient numbers of people to use the ballot box to express their demands.”

What follows provides a more detailed account of Birch’s views about the importance of a transparent electoral process to the movement towards democracy as she tells it to Creative’s Director of Electoral Education & Integrity Practice Area Jeffrey Carlson in a recent interview.

Q: What is electoral malpractice and how does it impact the credibility of the electoral process?

Electoral malpractice can be understood as the manipulation of electoral processes and outcomes so as to substitute personal or partisan benefit for the public interest.

Electoral malpractice has a serious negative effect on the credibility of electoral processes. Not only does it tend to make elections less legitimate in the eyes of voters, it often undermines a country’s international reputation as well. The delegitimation of elections can also have serious consequences for political stability and the governability of a country, leading in extreme cases to civil unrest. Finally, misconduct at election time can lead to other forms of corruption, inasmuch as those elected through fraudulent voting procedures are likely to go on to engage unethical practices while in office.

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Q: What are some of the dominant manifestations of electoral malpractice and how do they vary in countries around the world?

Every phase of the electoral cycle – from the drafting of laws to the drawing of boundaries, the compiling or voter registers and the nomination of candidates to campaigning, voting , vote counting and tabulation and the adjudication of disputes – can become an object of electoral malpractice.

A convenient way of categorizing forms of electoral misconduct is according to the object of manipulation. In this sense we can talk of the manipulation of rules (via laws and regulations), the manipulation of voters (via campaign techniques and media bias), and manipulation of voting procedures (via misconduct in voter and candidate registration, polling arrangements, voting and counting procedures and result announcement, etc.).

Most forms of electoral malpractice can be found throughout the world, though there are variations associated with different regions of the world and different types of regime. The use of outright violence against voters, candidates and polling staff tends to be more common in less developed countries, whereas resources are more commonly manipulated in countries at higher levels of development.

The blatant manipulation of voting and vote counting is less common in elections that are observed by large-scale observer missions, particularly when the country in question is heavily dependent on international aid and/or trade.

Q: When is electoral malpractice most likely to occur?

Electoral malpractice is most likely to occur when the stakes are high. This includes close elections where a few votes could swing the election. It also includes contexts where winning or losing power can dramatically change the economic fortunes and life chances of candidates, as is often the case in highly corrupt and authoritarian countries. We also find that electoral malpractice is more common in countries with higher levels of economic inequality, larger rural populations, weaker civil society and restrictions on press freedom.

Q: Can electoral malpractice ever be eliminated or is promoting electoral integrity necessarily a sustained and on-going effort?

Electoral malpractice can never be entirely eliminated; the goal of electoral reform efforts should be to remove systematic electoral malpractice. When misconduct in elections becomes an isolated event, then we can say that a country has high quality elections. Even then, however, vigilance is required, and all countries require sustained ongoing efforts to maintain electoral quality and popular confidence in electoral quality.

Q: Who is responsible for ensuring the integrity of the electoral process during different phases of the electoral cycle?

Key actors who are responsible for ensuring the integrity of the electoral process include electoral administrators, parties and candidates, civil society, relevant members of the judicial system and voters. International bodies play a role in setting universal standards of electoral conduct. Sometimes they also have a part to play in observing elections and offering electoral assistance.

Q: What approach must different governmental, non-governmental, and international actors apply to effectively promote electoral integrity?

There are many different approaches that can be taken to promoting electoral integrity and the most appropriate approach depends on the specific features of a given context. That said, there are a number of important core values that can be expected to subtend any successful effort to promote electoral integrity: these include transparency, impartiality, respect and inclusiveness.

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