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Observing the elections of the future

How will changes in technology impact on the ability of election observers to monitor the democratic process?

Ben Graham Jones
17 October 2016
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Ben Graham Jones observes a campaign rally during elections in Gabon. (Author photo)

Ben Graham Jones observes a campaign rally during elections in Gabon. (Author photo)What will tomorrow’s elections look like? For those seeking to improve the enterprise of election observation, this is perhaps the most important question of all. This is because observation missions provide concrete recommendations for increased adherence to international democratic standards. Ensuring that these recommendations remain relevant and achievable requires understanding the ways in which elections are transforming.

This article identifies three current trends which will impact the future of election observation. The first is the emergence of online sources of local knowledge. The second is an increasing digitisation of certain processes. The third is a growing feeling amongst observers and policymakers that the implementation of mission recommendations is just as important as the recommendations themselves.

As Director of Strategy of AEGEE Election Observation, the emerging authority on young people in elections, I spend a great deal of time contemplating the future of such missions. As an observer seconded by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which sends British observers to EU and OSCE /ODIHR observation missions, I have studied first-hand the changes that are impacting our field.

I have concluded that these three trends offer a range of opportunities to methodological reformers of election observation.

First of all, online sources of local knowledge. International observers come from diverse backgrounds, and whilst they often have considerable elections experience, they are not necessarily experts in the country being observed. This means that one of the main tasks of the election observation mission is to tap into local sources of knowledge in order to make the most well-informed assessment possible.

During a recent secondment to a mission by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I found that my driver and interpreter - both locally recruited - were often the first to find out about campaign events arranged at short notice, allegations of irregularities in our area of observation, and rapidly transforming electoral developments. These colleagues were goldmines of valuable information precisely because they had access to online information sharing networks that I was not yet privy to.

The nature of these networks vary from country-to-country, but can include WhatsApp groups, country-specific apps, e-platforms for citizen journalists, informal mailing lists of citizens in specific areas, and Facebook groups. Accessing these information flows may require already being connected with local people on social networking groups, having an understanding of specific local patterns of social network usage, and being included on email lists which may not be publicly searchable. This body of information may not be readily accessible to an observer who may only have been in the country for a relatively short period of time.

One particular challenge of developing these methodologies is the sheer quantity of potentially observable information. Digital information provides a far greater range of potentially accessible inputs, and this risks balancing observational comprehensiveness against operational effectiveness. Preventing information overload will therefore require deploying tools for prioritising which information is likely to be more or less significant for the electoral process.

At their most simple, tools for prioritisation may be a simple checklist to identify and extract high-priority information from an online forum of citizen observers in a particular province. At a more complex level, such tools may include social network analysis software. This might be an enormous task, but should not discourage methodological reformers from proceeding down this path. The challenge of developing these methodologies is great only because the value of the potential observational input is so significant. In fact, harnessing online local knowledge is of increasing significance because of the rapidly increasing rates of online communication in many countries in which we observe. digital will not necessarily equal accessible unless methodologies to harness online local knowledge networks are developed.This imperative is compounded by the youthful populations of many of these countries, and the fact that young people tend to use digital forms of communication disproportionately. In short, for election observers, digital will not necessarily equal accessible unless innovative methodologies to harness online local knowledge networks are developed.

Observing tomorrow´s elections will require new approaches to both observation and prioritisation. The aim of election observation remains the same, but whilst traditional means of gathering information remain absolutely necessary, they are no longer sufficient.

This is why AEGEE Election Observation is presently developing innovative ways to observe digital-format information. Practical steps forward may include pre-deployment consultation with specialists on the local social media environment, working with locally recruited staff to develop a locally-integrated social media infrastructure geared towards information input rather than just public relations output, as well as devising trainings for experts charged with the observation of these platforms and networks.

Widespread digitisation of voting, however, remains a distant prospect in most places. Countries such as Estonia which have moved towards embracing digital voting remain the exception, contrary to the expectations of many - a perhaps surprising development considering the frequent overtures to make politics more accessible to the Facebook generation.

However, the mantra of the election observer is that ‘there is far more to an election than voting’. In other respects, whole new digitally-induced domains of concern for the enterprise of election observation are indeed emerging. These include digital voter registration processes, online voter education campaigns, partisan spyware, targeted online campaigning, online party data collection, a range of election-related apps, online party donation platforms, and the capacity for making party accounts and electoral codes available on the net.

Processes of digitisation are not isolated under the remit of one particular expert specialism. Election experts of all stripes - electoral, political, campaign finance, and media, for example - may require new competences to keep pace as more election-related activity moves online. This is why initiatives training election observers are developing thematic training about online election content, and encouraging applications from experts of various specialisms.

Developing the methodology and training necessary to observe elections in the context of ongoing processes of digitisation - and the reform of already-digitised electoral processes - will require close liaison with other practitioners in the fields of electoral assistance and private sector provision of election technologies. By liaising closely with those developing the technologies of tomorrow, observers will be best placed to develop the necessary training and methodology. This collaboration ensures that observation will never be one step behind, using yesterday’s methodology to observe today’s elections.

One of the most exciting developments in contemporary election observation is the growing emphasis on the following-up of mission recommendations. This area has been cited by EU representatives as the ‘single biggest challenge ahead for international observation’. It is vital that we make the most of this impetus. Doing so will require managing potential tensions at the heart of election observation.

Credible international observation requires independence from the electoral authorities and domestic political forces. However, credible follow-up of mission recommendations requires partnership and engagement which will entail compromise, strategic engagement, and pragmatism. Decades of systematic election observation have shown that there is not necessarily a tension between these two tasks – but the line is fine. Balancing the differing commitments of practitioners – disinterestedness and partnership, democracy promotion and non-interference, operational independence and operational effectiveness –requires internal mission discipline, professionalism, and a sense of diplomacy.

Another consideration for those bolstering the follow-up of mission recommendations is that of knowledge transfer. A month after election day, the majority of personnel from the mission are likely to have left the country. Effective follow-up requires strategic stakeholder engagement well in advance of even the deployment of the mission – and for this to be done in a way which does not compromise the non-interference and political independence of the mission.

One way of mitigating this tension is by transferring responsibility for promoting the implementation of these recommendations to other actors than that sending the mission. However, third parties may have less of a commitment to and understanding of the specific recommendations. Alternatively, the election observing body itself can be involved in promoting these implementations – although this risks accusations of partiality that can jeopardise long-term operational effectiveness.

Practitioners are agreed that credible follow-up requires more than distributing reports – it requires the sort of strategic engagement of member states, NGOs and other actors referred to; for example, in the OSCE/ODIHR Handbook on the Follow-up of Electoral Recommendations. If the shift towards reforming our approach towards the follow-up of recommendations continues apace, monitoring and managing actor perceptions of our work will become increasingly important to long-term perceptions of the impartiality of election observation.

So what will tomorrow’s election observation look like? Ongoing processes of methodological review right across the field certainly indicate that the enterprise is likely to change meaningfully in coming years. Based on current trends, I would place my bets on a greater harnessing of digital-format local knowledge, a mainstreaming of innovative ways to observe and prioritise information from online sources, and a renewed understanding of how practitioners should relate to national authorities, electoral assistance professionals and media networks to better follow-up on mission recommendations. Your predictions and observations are welcomed in the comment section below.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

 

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