Thursday, December 18, 2008

Observing the Observers

Governments in many post-Soviet states have accused international election observation missions of unfair practices, double-standards, and excessively negative reports. By contrast, participants in some missions have argued that international and domestic pressure sometimes leads to improperly flattering assessments.

Monday's New York Times profiled problems with election observation in post-Soviet states. The most pointed criticism was directed at missions dispatched by the Commonwealth of Independent States. While CIS standards seem to be low to non-existent (CIS observers do not seem to have witnessed an election that, from their perspective, fails to meet international standards), all organizations could improve the quality of election observation missions.

As Thomas Carothers and others noted in the Journal of Democracy over a decade ago, many international observation teams are inadequately trained, lack relevant language skills, and focus too much attention on election day activities. The need to quickly issue reports the day after balloting precludes careful analysis of the data collected in the field. On a related note, the organizations conducting missions do not seem to make the raw data and observer commentaries collected in polling sites publicly available, undermining transparency and confidence in the summary reports. All observer organizations, not only the CIS, could benefit from improvements in their methods of observing elections.

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