The risks of flawed and failed elections worldwide

Contact: Pippa Norris
Date: February 26, 2014

In many countries, polling day ends with disputes about ballot-box fraud, corruption, and flawed registers. Which claims are accurate? And which are false complaints from sore losers?

New evidence gathered by the Electoral Integrity Project has just been released in an annual report which compares the risks of flawed and failed elections, and how far countries around the world meet international standards. The EIP is an independent research project based at the University of Sydney and Harvard University, under the direction of Pippa Norris, Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. 

This annual report evaluates all national parliamentary and presidential contests occurring in 66 countries worldwide holding 73 election from 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2013 (excluding smaller states with a population below 100,000), from Albania to Zimbabwe. Data is derived from a global survey of 855 election experts. Immediately after each contest, the survey asks domestic and international experts to monitor the quality based on 49 indicators. These responses are then clustered into eleven stages occurring during the electoral cycle and summed to construct an overall 100-point expert Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index and ranking.

Several major new findings emerge from the EIP report.

• Headlines often focus on problems occurring on polling day. Yet lack of a level playing field in political finance and campaign media were seen by experts as the most serious risk to integrity worldwide. These risks were found in many countries, with campaign finance the weakest part of the electoral cycle.

• Overall, not surprisingly, electoral integrity is strengthened by democracy and development. Longer experience over successive contests consolidates democratic institutions, deepens civic cultures, and builds the capacity of electoral management bodies. Nevertheless electoral integrity was particularly strong in several third wave democracies and emerging economies, including the Republic of Korea, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Lithuania, Argentina, and Mongolia.

• By contrast, experts were critical about flawed elections in several long-established democracies, such as Italy and Japan. Most strikingly, according to the PEI index, the United States ranked 26th out of 73 elections under comparison worldwide, the lowest score among Western nations. Experts highlighted concern over American practices of district boundaries, voter registration, and campaign finance.

• Worldwide, South East Asia was the weakest region. This includes Malaysia, due to its district boundaries and electoral laws, and Cambodia, with concerns about voter registration, the compilation of results, and the independence of electoral authorities. Recent electoral protests and instability in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia vividly illustrate these challenges. Eurasian elections also raise concern, such as those in Belarus, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Finally, several African states with restricted human rights and political freedoms were at risk of failed elections, including Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, the Republic of Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe.

Subsequent annual reports will cover national elections every year, to broaden the comparison worldwide.

“The spread of elections worldwide during recent decades has been accompanied by widespread concern about their quality,” Pippa Norris commented, “Too often elections are deeply flawed, or even failing to meet international standards. This study is the first to gather reliable evidence from experts to pinpoint where contests are problematic- such as in Belarus, Djibouti, and Zimbabwe – and also to celebrate where they succeed, such as in Norway, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and South Korea.”

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