When Perceptions Match Reality: New Working Paper Examines Global Norms for Electoral Integrity

April 3, 2012
By Doug Gavel

Claims of election fraud and irregularities -- from ballot access and bribery to vote-rigging and electoral violence -- have captured the headlines in many parts of the world -- from Kabul and Kenya to Moscow and Harare. International observers repeatedly condemn these sorts of flaws. But does the general public share their disquiet? This issue is the focus of a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper authored by Pippa Norris, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics.

“When international observers criticize the quality of elections, do these expert evaluations reflect ‘Western/American’ values? Or are there universal global norms of electoral integrity and malpractice which are shared by ordinary people living in diverse cultures?” Norris asks. “If there are indeed universal norms, then public perceptions and expert evaluations should be observed to coincide.”

Based on a brand new battery of questions included for the first time in the 2010-12 World Values Survey, Norris examined eight diverse nations – Estonia, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Zimbabwe – to rank how closely public perceptions aligned with expert evaluations.

The research reached three primary conclusions:

  • Alternative expert indices of electoral integrity and electoral malpractice share a common consensus. This increases confidence in the scientific reliability and robustness of these measures.
  • Public perceptions of electoral integrity also often do reflect the published reports of electoral observer missions in each country, with ordinary people using similar standards as the experts.
  • However public perceptions of electoral malpractice are more poorly linked with the expert indices, although it remains to be tested in future whether this is simply due to the limited number of cases under comparison or to other reasons.

Norris hopes the research will ultimately strengthen elections by advancing the idea of a set of universal standards by which they can be fairly judged.

“Overall the study does lend support to the thesis that global norms are shaping a shared consensus about the international principles and standards which should operate to uphold human rights and strengthen electoral integrity in countries around the world,” she argues.

The paper is the first component of a major new research project called Challenges of Electoral Integrity, headed by Norris, to be launched this June.

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picture of Pippa Norris, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics

Pippa Norris, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics

“If there are indeed universal norms, then public perceptions and expert evaluations should be observed to coincide," said Norris.